Experimenting with Tech Reviews

I’m trying to experiment with a new genre: the Tech Review. Not because I love them. Most of them are just not very good.(exceptions) Low production values. Poorly structured. Or just plain dull. I’m currently working on a series of tech reviews for the Center for Digital Storytelling. Mostly I’ll be covering recording hardware and software for digital storytellers. But their blog is really very good–The writing is generally strong, if not outright beautiful–and I’d prefer not to muck it up with typical blunders of a tech reviewer. So I have some new ideas that I’m going to try out during this series. I guess I’m trying to think of this as an exercise in working out a set of best practices for the type of review I’m after. In no particular order…

  • Establish a narrative to the review. That is, try to consider a specific workflow or set of practices within which a reader might use the hardware or software. Also try to incorporate a sense for the learning curve involved. I’m conceptualizing my audience as a bunch of people who are just getting started recording voices for stories, so I’d like to offer a sense for what it’s going to take not just to use the product, but to learn to use it as well.
  • Use original photographs and video of the product. I think this practice will make for a bit more realism in the review. It will also allow me to make the audio and visuals freely available for circulation, reuse, and remix via a Creative Commons license. Mostly, I think I’ll be using Flickr, YouTube, and Soundcloud. But these aren’t perfect. For instance, Soundcloud’s free account is pretty limited in terms of how much space you can have, which means that I have to come up with a back-up or alternative. More thinking to do on this one.
  • Focus on the positive, but be honest about value. It’s important to remember that there are digital storytellers with all sorts of different technological comfort levels. There’s also plenty of variation regarding how much a person is willing or able to spend on this endeavor. If someone can’t afford to buy Apogee or Roland equipment, and needs to start out with  Behringer or Alessis products, there’s no reason to insult them, or to imply that their equipment is subpar. And especially as it relates to software, free is not always better.
  • Make something with the product and include it as part of the review. If it’s recording equipment that I’m reviewing, it seems only appropriate that I share a recording. If I’m reviewing a storytelling site (like Creativist.com, or something), I should probably signup, make a story, and include it in the review.
  • Cover the features of the product, but spend more time on the benefits of those features. For instance, a unit might have XLR inputs, but it’s more important to note that XLR inputs allow you to connect a wider variety of microphones. I think it will be tempting to make a list of features without really explaining how they are good for my intended audience.
  • Find the most appropriate technologies for presenting the information. One of the biggest failures of the common tech review is set of bullet points listing the features of a product. Taking advantage of a platform like ThingLink.com allows me to upload a product photo and then add interactive buttons to the image. When a user hovers over a button, text appears which can identify the feature, as well as explaining how it might be useful for digital storytellers. To tell you the truth, I can’t really imagine that it’s not a WAY more popular strategy. I actually haven’t seen another review use it at all.
  • Get the review circulating across a variety of platforms. It will also be important to make sure the design resources are interconnected across those platforms. When someone runs across an image of the iTrack on my Flickr account, I should have a link back to the review somewhere in the notes. I should also try to link out directly to those resources on those various platforms from within the review itself.

As an example, I’ve included below an interactive ThingLink image I’ll be included in the Center for Digital Storytelling review to be published on April 3rd.

Exceptions. There are some folks out there actually producing some consistently high-quality reviews. For instance… B&H Photo; PCMag.com; KenRockwell.com; Transom.org.

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