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Behind the scenes on product reviews

It occurred to me recently that it might be a bit entertaining to get a ‘behind the scenes’ view on how product reviews come together.  While product review posts actually total a very small number of the total posts I publish each year (only a handful of the nearly 300+ posts I’ll publish in 2010) – the amount of time spent tends to be pretty high.

So let’s go through it from start to finish…

Incoming products

For reasons that I’ve yet to fully grasp – products seem to come in bunches to review.  Some products are shipped to me by the vendor themselves, and some I simply buy out of curiosity.  Either way, they all end up here:

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You may remember this room as the ‘CompuTrainer’ room, though, really – it’s just the ‘place we put stuff we can’t find a place for’.

Depending on how big the product is – I’ll either take some initial shots down here, or it’ll make it’s way three floors up.  For example, these PowerTap integrated wheels from CycleOps got their initial shots taken downstairs, since it would be a bit awkward upstairs (not that I shy away from awkward).

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Unboxing and Initial Product Shots

Once the products have made their way up three flights of stairs to my home office, the unboxing begins.  Actually, until recently, this was done on the kitchen table, but then I had a revelation with some Ikea furniture – and it made my life so much easier!

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I unbox everything part by part and take photos.  I’ve long since learned it’s a million times easier to take all these photos upfront, rather than later on – as afterwards you can’t quite remember which parts originally came in which boxes.

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It’s at this point I do all the initial ‘first run’ (turn-on) type shots, just to capture the first user experience stuff.

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Sometimes though, things will sit around for a while – typically because of my travel schedule.  But I also focus on items based on demand from ya’ll.  I generally try to prioritize high demand products sooner than lower demand items.  But other factors such as if the device isn’t publically announced, can play into timing or review time as well.

Here’s the current pile of some of things ‘in queue’.

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Well, except the orange box there – that one’s already done. It just was a good box for building a pile, so it stayed in that pile, versus the other pile.

What’s the other pile you ask?  That’s all stuff I’ve bought and hold onto for responding to questions/comments/etc…- primarily a gigantic box of sports gadgets:

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Product and Test:

At this point, with the initial box shots done – it’s time to actually use the product.  I generally use it just like any other person…except, probably with a bit more focus on trying to use all the features.  I’ll often take photos along the way using my smaller Optio W90 camera – just as part of my regular workouts.

Though, in general, these photos rarely make the cut for the final review because it’s really hard to get high quality shots while focusing on training.

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But, eventually once in a while I’ll get a few keepers’ that show off a very particular item that’s harder to replicate outside of a specific longer workout. Like below, as part of an interval set (4 reps).

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For the most part though, this phase is just about using the crap out of the product.  I’m going to push through and touch every single item on every single menu.  As the ANT+ Team said when they introduced me at the ANT+ Symposium onto the stage “If there’s something wrong with your product, he’s going to find it.  You’re not going to slip one past him.”.

Well, I try.

Writing the post (outline)

Now comes the ‘less fun’ part.  This would be writing up the whole review.  This is the part I tend to procrastinate a bit.  In actuality though, I find that once I start, I can usually write up the raw text of the review in one transcontinental 4-6 hour flight.

This raw outline simply features ‘xxx’ wherever I need to put in photos, clarify/validate information, or eventually put in hyperlinks, etc… I write all my posts with the free Windows Live Writer, since it allows me to draft everything offline (from photos to text to formatting), and then simply click Publish when I have access.

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I’ll typically write everything from memory during the initial draft, and then walk through later on to double-check it all in the later final drafts.

It’s at this stage that I’ll reach back out to the vendor if I have any questions that need answers.  Often times though, this happens multiple times over the course of the review – usually it’s more of a general dialogue/discussion than a specific ‘hit-list’ of questions and answers.  And typically, there’s at least one teleconference involved to discuss my thoughts.

Getting all the final photos

Once I’ve got my outline, I’ve got to go back and fill in all the ‘xxx’ sections with what is usually photos and screenshots.  It’s this last step that takes a bit of time.

From here I end up with a ‘shoot-list’ of things I need to go out and re-create and take photos of.  This is typically individual feature sets within the product.  These are then mixed in to the review to illustrate the different components  as I discuss them.

Pics to GrabScreenshot

Keep in mind, for products that are multisport, this means going to the pool, and a run, and a bike ride, and anything else I happen to cover.  This also covers all the non-sport pieces of the product like downloading workouts, etc…  In short, it’s a lot of pictures!

And sometimes, I’m looking for a very exacting shot…which, can take tons of photos:

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It’s also during this phase that The Girl occasionally helps out.  Though, I really do end up doing the vast majority of the shots with tripods or the camera perched in a sketchy position.  Much to her amusement.

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(Two Hands, courtesy…The Girl…one to hold phone, another to take the photo)

Publish

Finally, comes the moment of publishing!  Which, is as simple as just pressing the publish button.

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My kinda step!

Sending it back

Actually, there’s one last step – sending the stuff back.  As I note in the vast majority of my reviews, most of the stuff goes back to the vendor.  Some things don’t if I end up giving it away, or if it’s disposable or not useful after single-use – or obviously, if I bought it myself.  But anything that you think you might want to keep, typically goes back in the box:

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And then it’s off to the FedEx man for its trip back to its original home.

17 Comments

  1. Wow, that is a lot of work but trust me out here in blogger land we are grateful!

    Keep up the awesome work!

    Reply
  2. I want to see an in-depth, unboxing review of all of your christmas presents, ala your gear reviews.

    Reply
  3. Wow, that's a lot of work. But I guess I'm not too surprised since I think your reviews are more in-depth and professional than many magazine reviews who do that as a full time job.

    Reply
  4. tim

    Photography protip: make a simple lightbox use stuff you might already have around the house.

    Step by step instructions: link to digital-photography-school.com

    I've used tissue paper instead of fabric which has worked out well.

    Reply
  5. Thanks for all your hard work. It really takes a lot of time and dedication and we really appreciate it.

    Reply
  6. Love the post.

    Reply
  7. Shane W

    Thanks for the peek behind the curtain!

    What are those lights you're using in the initial product photos and where did you get them? My wife often has lighting trouble trying to take food photos, those lights look like they might help out. Thanks!

    Reply
  8. Hi

    Thanks for sharing that. I had an idea of the amount of effort you put in from my experience at http//Backpackgeartest.org but still got a few tips from what you do. Excellent work.

    @Tim thanks for the link. Will have to have a go at making one of these.

    Reply
  9. Lots of work behind these reviews. I'm one that really appreciates them.

    Reply
  10. Y'all is y'all, not ya'll.

    Reply
  11. @rainmaker,
    thanks for this postmodern look at the review process... funny, that, when reality is revealed as fiction revealed as reality...

    :)

    @bikephil
    ya'll best settle down there now...

    Reply
  12. Just wanted to say thanks for all your hard work

    Reply
  13. Just goes to show, the juice is always worth the squeeze!

    Reply
  14. I stumbled on your blog today and already read several reviews/articles – great posts.

    Question 1: What brand/model strobes are you using for the "Behind the scenes on product review." They appear simple and useful in lieu of more complex systems.

    Question 2: Why no reviews of Polar products – don’t any show up at your door? It would be great to compare the Garmin 201 to a comparable Polar HR monitor.

    Thanks again and I look forward to reading future entries.

    Brian

    Reply
  15. Anonymous

    Great stuff, if only your style of reviewing was applied to everything!

    Reply
  16. dboatRunner

    WOW! That's an incredible amount of work....
    I want to thank you for doing the review on the forerunner 10. I bought it recently because of your awesome review!

    Reply
  17. Bob Croucher

    Hi Ray,

    I've been reading your blog for a few years now. I am always super impressed with the work you put in to your reviews. Like you, I love technology, gadgets, and multi-sport. I live near Portland, in southwest Washington. I write game software for Disney Interactive Studios.

    I appreciate this behind the scenes look at your process. A missing piece that I've wondered about, is how do you post to facebook, google+, twitter, too? It's great that people can stay connected where ever they please.

    It's a bit like downloading your data, it would be great to have a way to download it once, then disseminate your workouts to trainingpeaks, strata, garmin, etc... , without a manual process.

    -Bob

    Reply

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