I have realized something lately. My user experience is being ruined by reviews – for everything. This is exacerbated by the fact virtually nothing is exempt from being reviewed online today. The local Steak-N-Shake has a 3-star rating near my office. Who bothers to review fast food anyway?!?! I mean is one Taco Bell much different from the next – save for the isolated experience of getting a taco instead of a burrito or perhaps they took an extra minute to get you your order of Nachos Bell Grande at the drive through? And who would bother to read reviews of a Taco Bell before putting in their order for a five dollar meal?

It doesn’t end just with food. Yelp.com – among other sites – offers reviews of everything. There is even a 3.5 star review for the Home Depot across the street from me. One user gives them a 1-star review for a home improvement project and then states, “We have been and will continue to use Lowe’s and Ace for our home improvement needs.” You absolutely have to be kidding me. Another user gives them a 1-star review and cites poor customer service in relation to their demographic (or race). They state, “if you fit the demographic they are looking for, go there; as clearly they will help you.” I’m sure Home Depot has Arian racists working for their organization – as do other home improvement chains and almost any organization. But, I doubt this is indicative of the organization as a whole.

Reviews can often be arbitrary, capricious and anecdotal. This obviously throws off the average star review on many sites. And even though I know this, I have a compulsory urge to check reviews for everything and base my choices on the average rating. I’ve recently made an effort to give reviews less credence – especially for restaurants where tastes seem to vary widely. I have been to both poorly rated and highly rated restaurants where I completely disagree with the reviews – even when there are hundreds of reviews indicating the average should be pretty accurate.

This all goes beyond the food industry as well. Amazon is a place where reviews can highly influence the customer. Research indicates a negative review has a higher impact on a customer than a positive review. This is called negativity bias. And even knowing as much about psychology as I do, I still find these reviews change my behavior and purchasing patterns – but maybe a little less so these days.

The idea a review can shape our behavior is interesting. I can remember a time in my travels with my wife where we would blindly stop in at a restaurant. There was something spontaneous about this and a little adventurous or romantic for us as a couple. Reviews have – in some ways – ruined that. A week or so ago, my wife picked a new restaurant for us to try. I immediately inquired as to the rating. So much for spontaneity.

Why are we so willing to accept what is essentially “word of mouth” concerning a product or service? This is a bit perplexing to me as I closely study user and customer experience in my profession.

A few years back, I was on a trip to get my daughter settled in for her second year at Purdue. I stopped in at a local Taco Bell to get something quick as I was in a rush and on the road. While waiting on my order, another customer became irate claiming she had been waiting entirely too long for her order and the customer service was poor. She cited the number of cars moving through the drive through as proof she had been waiting too long. First, the drive through should go a little faster than the service inside. One would theorize those in drive through have less time to dine and enjoy. But there is this other aspect of the situation I have not been able to get out of my head: Taco Bell is not a place you go for the pinnacle of a customer experience. It’s a fast food joint. You go there for a cheap meal – not engaging customer service. And speed? She had wait a few more minutes than everyone else. All things considered, Taco Bell (and most fast food restaurants) do a pretty phenomenal job of getting your meal to you quickly. In fact, it’s a bit amazing at how fast they do this. Perhaps, this lady should take a trip back to when we had to hunt, skin and prepare our meals ourselves.

Customers’ overly dramatic (and often self-serving) accounts of their experience have even become a source of entertainment. Real Actors Read Yelp is a YouTube channel devoted to the satirical reading of reviews – stupid reviews, for the most part. And yet, why do I still have this compulsory urge to use them as a guide?

In his book, Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom spends an entire chapter on his experiment later released as a movie, Meet the Morgensons. This experiment investigated how word-of-mouth influences our buying behavior. Lindstrom’s entire book is a wonderful read for anyone in UX or customer experience. But, Meet the Morgensons is a rabbit hole demonstrating word-of-mouth trumps even the best advertisement campaigns. In fact, we are probably hardwired for this behavior if one considers evolutionary psychology as an explanation. Simply put: Monkey see, monkey do is how we often survived as a species.

So as much as I try to ignore reviews, I will probably constantly be plagued with behavior-changing word of mouth in the form of online reviews. Finding a middle ground is the key challenge.

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