Fear the Detailed Review
Posted August 2, 2007 6:50pm
Had a talk with Beata last night about why I haven't published a detailed review on CoffeeGeek in quite some time. The answer's simple: fear.
To expand a bit on that, there's three main reasons.
First, back when I first started publishing these things in 2001, there were no reviews like them online - at least for espresso machines. There were other reviews of that level of detail in both photography and verbage, but they were in other influencer categories - I've long said that www.dpreview.com was one of the models for which the CoffeeGeek website was based on, and their product reviews back then (and still today) really set the standard for me about how detailed a product review can be. The photography was always first rate, the verbage was well written, and the details were huge.
As I started writing and publishing Detailed Reviews, each new review got more and more detailed as I learned the craft of organizing, recording, researching, compiling, and writing these things. Probably two of my most detailed reviews have to be the two Elektra reviews, especially the Semi Automatica model. It had it all - group testing, reams and reams of data collected, and a real enthusiasm in the words.
And that was my first of three reasons for not publishing a detailed review since then. I just set my own bar too high - by the time the S9 review came out, I wasn't having any fun doing these any longer. They weren't something I looked forward to - they were too challenging, by my own standard. And I feared them.
The second reason is something behind the scenes. Almost everytime I did a Detailed Review (or QuickShot for that matter), there were problems. Problems with the product supplier not being happy. Problems with manufacturers being irate. Sometimes the problems were minor (just vocalized difference of opinions). Sometimes, major (like how one supplier, back in March 2002 threatened to sue me (he's since threatened several times on other issues too). Again, not much fun.
The third reason goes back to something I wrote above. Back in 2001, there were scant few hyper-detailed product reviews for coffee and espresso equipment online. There were some here and there, ut they were on fan personal websites, posted by the owner of a specific machine, on their own website. There was no website or service at that time like Digital Photography Review or similar, for coffee and espresso.
Today, there's a bevy of websites that host very detailed product reviews. The most obvious is Dan Kehn's Home Barista website, where people like Dan and Jim Schulman have posted hyper-detailed reviews of products. Some are in "review" format, multi page, like the Andreja Premium buyers' guide, some are written in forums-format, like the ongoing Titan Grinders reviews.
I totally tip my hat to the level of detail, and downright anal-ness that the reviewers on HB have achieved. In many ways, the review formats early on copied the style and formats that I did on CoffeeGeek (I think Jim Schulman said as much in one of the reviews he helped write), but I didn't so much create those as copy them myself from DPreview.com and other influencer websites who lead the way in other technological fields.
But where I tried to balance out technical stuff with other factors I like in a review (readability, reach so that noobs aren't thrown off by too-technical jargon and detailed minutia, detailed, clear photography) HB reviews went for the throat when it came to tech - every possible technical aspect of a machine was looked at, tested, tweaked, examined, stretched, pulled, torn apart and put back together. A new bar was definitely set in technical aspects. Sometimes, I wish I had an engineering background lol!
And that created a third fear. See, I can't stand fluff reviews I read in magazines and on some websites (noteably some digital photography websites, but also some PDA sites and others) where I could just tell the reviewer either a) spent maybe 30 minutes with a product before pronouncing judgment; b) were just barely disguised paid shills for the product supplier, or c) a combination of both. I want, and expect meat and substance in a review called a "Detailed Review". I remember getting an Aussie magazine last year that was marketed as a "book" (though in a magazine format) that "reviewed" a dozen or more espresso machines for the Aussie market, and just laughed at the quality (or lack thereof) in the reviews - I knew they weren't reviews, but just glorified press releases for the products.
And my great worry as HB started up its reviews (and also some Euro sites, and even a few Aussie / Kiwi sites), was that, even if I maintained the standard I set for myself in my own Detailed Reviews on CoffeeGeek, the reviews I publish would be blown away by the technical aspects seen on these other websites. I already wasn’t enjoying the technical standards I had set for myself, and here were some supergeeks, engineers, machinists, scientists etc etc who were raising the bar way beyond anything I could achieve.
I was talking to Beata about this last night. And I showed her a few of the reviews I fear. And she said something to me that I was thinking myself at times. "Yes, but I can't read these!"
I mean no slight whatsoever to the reviews on HB and other websites. I think I've established above how much respect I have for these reviews. But she was right - these reviews are too technical for the normal consumer. Too detailed. Too steeped in minutia, charts, graphs, etc. Well not all are - just the ones I showed her - there's others that have really engaging discussion that she felt were readable and understandable. But the ones I held up as ones I considered the best reviews on HB - she found her eyes glazing over within seconds.
Today, I polled a few other people. Specifically people who've gotten on my case for doing a Detailed Review on CG (or more properly, my lack of doing them). I asked them, without leading, to read a few reviews on HB and give feedback. Two, who by the way are serious espresso professionals, almost mirrored Beata's comments. They couldn't get through more than a page or two, and once the charts and graphs started, it was game over. One loved the reviews on HB and said "are you going to move to this kind of technical format?" The fourth person is a local Barista named Carl that I happened to visit today and have a coffee with. He's been a website member since 2002, but I've only gotten to know him in the past year.
Carl was the most informative of the four people I polled today. And his comment about the HB reviews I held up to a high standard caught me off guard. He said the reviews were interesting, but seemed very amateurish.WTF? I would never consider these reviews amateurish, so I asked him to expand. Carl, who also has a culinary background and is studying Forestry at UBC said it came down to presentation, writing, and the photography. For him, he wanted a certain level of detail, but more important to him were clear, professional visuals. He wanted good structure to the multi page reviews, and wanted stats where he could easily find them, and photography that showed the product in a (his words) "professional light".
Then he said "kind of like the reviews you used to do" (as he laughed at me. Sigh). Then he took me to my own website, and pointed out one review in particular he always remembered. The Francis! Francis! X3 Review. He said this was a machine he'd never consider buying (he works on a La Marzocco, and has a Silvia at home with a Mazzer Super Joly), but he read the review from start to finish without a break because of three things: The structure was great. The photography kept interest. And the writing was engaging, enthusiastic and informative, without overkill. He pointed in particular to the stats page as a way to get all the nitty gritty details of a machine... "if I want them". He said that my photographs totally made the review, and if anything, need more of them.
Then he said I need to stop thinking so much and start writing these reviews again.
Again, I mean no slight against Home-Barista at all. But I've been thinking about this all afternoon. I've been going through my CoffeeGeek Documents folder on my computer, with the years broken down (2007, 2006, 2005, 2004 etc) in subsdirectories, and each year directory has its own subdirectory: Reviews, First Looks, Raw Photography, Research, Articles, Competitions, How Tos, Guides, Finished Photography, Unused. I looked through all these and saw so many Word .docs going back to 2002 for products I have done a lot of testing and legwork on, and have recorded literally 100s of thousands of words on, but have never put into a published format. 2007 has over 150 Word .docs relating to machines alone, and there's barely anything to show for it on CoffeeGeek.
Mark gets to the point
Why am I writing this all? I think partially to garner feedback. I'm trying to figure out how to get over the fears of publishing these Detailed Reviews. I'm trying to figure out how to enjoy writing them again. I'm trying to figure out how to make and keep them unique, but keep them accessible to those who don't quite fall into the uber-geek category, while still making them appealing to the uber-geek. I'm trying to figure out if I need to go back to a structure, or develop a new structure and standard that I can live with.
Here's the stuff I love doing:
- testing and using the machines
- discovering the better ways to use a machine
- photographing the machines
- introducing others to the machines (other testers, the prospect of readers enjoying the article, etc)
- original, creative writing
- tasting the espresso
Here's the stuff I'm neutral about - it's a job, but not a pain:
- editing photographs
- compiling notes from consumer-testers
- monotony of head to head testing of several machines
- online and offline research for more obscure stuff, old standards (ie, old tests I've done, etc).
- shooting video (already started doing it)
Here's the stuff that I just don't like doing
- repetitive testing of minutia details of the machine (ie, how long to heat up, recovery time, grouphead temps, etc)
- building the pages for CoffeeGeek's CMS system
- laying out photographs on CoffeeGeek's CMS system
- checking links, stats, etc before publication
- editing video
- final organization of the photography for the website
- final editing of the articles
- compiling that huge statistics page that Carl (mentioned above) loved so much.
- worrying that people will think any technical stuff I do (especially if I tone it down, like I want to) is a joke, or not even worth it.
Sigh... what to do.