How a reviewer at the New York Times tests your product

Brian Chen

Way back before the advent of social media, one of the prime marketing techniques in the personal software business was getting your product reviewed in national media, such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. A powerful reviewer, like Walt Mossberg, formerly with The Wall Street Journal, could literally make or break a product.

So today I read with interest the Q & A with Brian X. Chen, The New York Times’s personal technology writer, about how he reviews products: Going Low-Tech to Solve Everyday High-Tech Problems.

There are good lessons here for any consumer product developer, whether or not you plan to try to get your product reviewed in the mainstream media.

What kind of testing setup do you use to tell us if a whiz-bang gadget or app or service is for real?

Oftentimes before I start testing a product, I jot down an objective set of tests for tasks that I can reasonably expect a product to do.

So the lesson here is, “What useful tasks does your product perform for the user?” Can you list them?

In addition to objective tests, my reviews are subjective. I keep in mind what I know average people care about when it comes to tech, other than a checklist of features. The setup needs to be simple and intuitive, the product needs to be durable and work well, the company’s customer service needs to be delightful and a gadget’s design needs to be aesthetically pleasing enough that you would feel proud about carrying it around or leaving it on your coffee table.

The two-word phrase for this paragraph is “user experience.” Apple is renowned for the quality of its user experience.  How does your product stack up against Brian Chen’s list of user experience criteria?

And here’s a warning if you have a what he calls a “blank slate product” like the Amazon Echo.

Blank-slate products like Echo Show create a dilemma for reviewers. Should we evaluate the product based on what it can do currently (which is very little), or what we think it has the potential to do in the future? Should we evaluate the product based on what it can do currently (which is very little), or what we think it has the potential to do in the future? I’m not a fortune teller, so I lean toward the former and render a “wait and see” verdict that seems repetitive. But even when people take the latter approach and predict a gadget’s potential, it’s unhelpful for informing people whether they should buy something today.

There is a major lesson for product developers here. Don’t ship a blank slate product! If you are a huge, successful company like Amazon you can get away with it. But it’s dangerous for a startup. Take the extra time to load up your product with the equivalent of “skills”, “apps” or “content” or make it very quick and easy for the user to do so. Because users most likely won’t buy your product based on what it has the potential to do in the future if it doesn’t do much for them right now.

Despite the power of social media, I still believe there is value for a startup in traditional media “earned exposure” otherwise known as PR or public relations. Startups need to create credibility and getting a good review from a well known reviewer can generate credibility in a hurry. But make sure your product is ready for prime time, because as the saying goes, “There’s no faster way to kill a bad product than to promote it.”



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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