Why reviews are just like voicemails

Most marketplaces today have some kind of 5-star review system that allow you to rate the provider of that service. Whether it's an on-demand marketplace or just e-commerce, the quantity and distribution of these reviews gives people a good at-a-glance view of the quality of that item or service. Getting deeper than just a cursory star rating is much more difficult.

When considering how to build a reviews product for your marketplace, there are two important questions to consider:

  1. To what extent is your service commoditized?
  2. How will you use more detailed individual reviews to improve the marketplace?

Where the item or the service is a commodity, the value of individual reviews is limited, i.e. a simple numerical rating convey the majority of what someone needs to know. As a result, the effort invested in creating a more robust reviews system doesn't justify the value. 

However, when it comes to items where an individual's taste and preferences can vary greatly, these kinds of individual reviews can be critical. This isn't a small segment; it applies to huge categories like books, clothing and even restaurants, e.g. someone who likes reading futuristic action-packed plot-turners is far less likely to appreciate a light class-driven comedy of manners. And similarly, while an individual Uber driver's ratings may not be useful to you, they can highlight important trends to the company, e.g. the actual ETA of drivers in a region is often X% longer than the predicted value.

But as useful as this information is, it's hard to get more detailed information in a review. In the case of Uber, the review often happens right as someone is looking to use the service again so their time is limited. In many other cases, it's because the effort required to fill out a review is too high for the value that it ultimately yields for the reviewer. In a way, it's like voicemail. The person leaving voicemails finds it much easier than having to write or text or email. However, the person receiving it has to be in a place where it can be heard clearly, and needs to actively pull out the necessary information (phone number, prescription ID, order number) to truly make use of it. The reviewer wants to leave a voicemail, i.e. get their opinion out as quickly and easily as possible. The reviewee (or company) wants the details in a clean structured format so that it can be fed back into the system and acted upon.

Here are two contrasting examples from Opentable and Amazon:

In the Opentable example, the length alone is overwhelming; there are six numerical rating sections, a yes/no option and fourteen different tags to read through and choose from. This is before even getting to MULTIPLE free text responses. In contrast, Amazon limits itself to four questions with a limited set of choices that are easy to distinguish between.

I'll leave you to guess which review I completed and which review I didn't even start.

How do you build useful reviews in a marketplace that meet the needs of both reviewer and reviewee? Start thinking about how people leave voicemails.