The Risks and Rewards of Customer Reviews
by Matt Fisher, UX Consultant

On my wish list for some time has been a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Though, combining my shamelessly cheapskate attitude with my wannabe-audiophile mindset, I was setting myself a challenge.

In my role as a user researcher, I often observe consumers’ desire for social proof when deciding on a product, and the important role customer reviews have upon their likelihood to purchase. It was the same for me.

My journey began a year ago, shopping for in-ear buds. I read the reviews and decided that ‘in-ear’ was worth a try. However, within a minute of trying them, I knew they weren’t for me.

A year later I was listening to a podcast during which a Radio DJ was interviewed about their experience of active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones. That triggered me to try again. I resonated with the DJ’s reluctance to give up traditional passive noise-cancelling headphones but I was also caught on their newfound enthusiasm for ANC.

I turn to Google to start my search afresh. A modest exploration of ‘best ANC headphones’ blog posts does not return any meaningful options (too expensive or out of stock). Back to Amazon, I’m looking for the price point, known brands, function descriptions, and of course, reviews and ratings.

I end up with four different headphones in my shortlist.

Why review reviews?

Reviews are no new thing – from film critics to consumer product testing, we’re well-versed in looking to independent quality sources of data to inform our decisions. As the internet has come of age, we’ve witnessed the rise of real-user reviews, not experts, but everyday consumers like you and me.

This occurrence is now so commonplace I, like most online shoppers I have observed during research, am conditioned to expect customer reviews as part of my decision-making; whether that be choosing headphones; where to eat; what app to download; how to travel, or what mortgage provider to choose.

Word-of-mouth reviews have taken place since the dawn of communication. Do your friends, family, and colleagues’ opinions have a more powerful influence on your decision-making than online reviews? Your friend’s poor experience of servicing their car at a local garage is likely to influence your likelihood to entrust your car to the same mechanic. But would a Google review from an anonymous stranger have the same effect? How about two or three similar Google reviews?

Would it surprise you, that 91 per cent of 18–34-year-olds; the digital native, tech-savvy and authenticity-demanding generation; trust online reviews just as much as personal recommendations[1]? It did me!

Reviews are sought to avoid buyers’ remorse; the fear of regretting a purchase decision. They’re examined to understand fellow purchasers’ experience of customer services and returning products, which relates to trusting the provider.

Reviews are subjective

The simple fact is that reviews are subjective. Headphones are the perfect example – what could sound amazing to me could be pitiful to another. My ‘good enough’ could be very different to yours. I’m no headphone connoisseur, I haven’t listened to ten different headphones before coming to my decision, but tomorrow, I could write a review that would inform the decision of a fellow purchaser.

Just as reviews are subjective, while scanning through reviews, I wonder if I am subjected to my own confirmation bias? If I like the price point or look of a particular set of headphones, perhaps I only take notice of the reviews I like, too?

Trust builders and confidence boosters

In a former role as a marketer, I recall frantically encouraging (positive) social media and Google reviews in order to build trust with my not-yet users. I can reminisce painful moments of carefully crafting responses to negative reviews. At times, we had to hold our hands up and say we got it wrong. Other times, I found myself attempting to explain why the reviewer’s opinion is unfair or unjustified – perhaps a lose-lose scenario.

Today, as a user researcher, I see how important reviews are as trust builders and confidence boosters. An absence of reviews on a product page will raise questions and doubts.

Selective Hearing

With my shortlist of headphones in front of me, I focus on the pair that caught my attention previously and review the reviews with greater scrutiny. Reflecting back, I observe that I take notice of reviews that are similar to my situation, e.g., ‘good for working from home and office’ and ignore others I deem to be irrelevant.

I notice one reviewer, who seemed to be knowledgeable, had tried lots of headphones and still raved about these. I read a story about good customer service and a 2-year warranty – all boosting my confidence and trust in this unfamiliar-to-me brand. I ignore the reviewer who lambasts the feel of the button depress – it’s the audio that counts.

The price is right, the specs are right, the reviews sound good to me. I have a front-runner. Briefly, I scroll to the other products, but quickly return to the product in question.

One reviewer particularly resonates with me: “for the cost, pretty amazed!” – You’ve ticked my cheapskate and wannabe-audiophile boxes. Sold.

So, what?

My journey was triggered by a professional’s review of a particular feature, and I wanted to experience their same ‘awakening’ to ANC. I reinforced my knowledge with real customers’ experiences of the product and so I gave it a shot, safe in the knowledge I could return if my experience didn’t match.

The cultivation of your product or services’ reviews starts first and foremost with providing a good experience.

Reviews empower your users to be the arbiters of your products and services. You reap what you sow: Offer the experience your users need to have. Reap the rewards of customer loyalty by providing an experience your users will happily tell their friends and strangers about.

If providing a genuinely wonderful experience leads naturally to positive reviews – that can be no bad thing for both the consumer and the brand.

I’m pleased to say that I’m content with my decision – there’s no buyer’s remorse here. Perhaps I’ll go and write my first Amazon review…

BTW, and if you’re interested, these are the PowerLocus headphones I chose.


UX Consultant Matt Fisher

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