Last week, the editors of The Wirecutter launched The Sweethome, extending their no-nonsense, one-recommendation-per-category approach from tech products to the home. I've been a fan of The Wirecutter since its launch, and purchased several items on their recommendation. But I find myself in the market for towels, toaster ovens and toilet paper more often than I am for printers and phones, and the choices for recommendations more limited. The combination of the two categories also fulfills a digital need I spotted long ago, and links to a number of discussions previously held on Design Observer. Below is a short interview with Sweethome editor Joel Johnson. But first, a little background on the issues at hand.
In 2010 Alice Twemlow turned her keen critical insight to (potentially) the most banal of critical forms: the Amazon product review, tying online critiques of wolf howl t-shirts and self-flushing toilets to the democratizing tradition of Reyner Banham and Jane Thompson. Her conclusion:
Criticism is only really productive if it reaches its intended audience in a way that surprises, goads or otherwise convinces them to act.Twemlow highlighted those reviews that undermine the product at hand; more recently, Bic pens for women were subjected to withering satirical treatment. Sample quote:
Someone has answered my gentle prayers and FINALLY designed a pen that I can use all month long! I use it when I'm swimming, riding a horse, walking on the beach and doing yoga. It's comfortable, leak-proof, non-slip and it makes me feel so feminine and pretty!
What the critics did that the amateurs don't is actually use the products: most of the action around these overwrought, overdetermined products is written. It is their appearance and their features that invite creative ridicule, not necessarily their function. In my critique of design blogs, also from 2010, I pointed to the lack of physical experience of products as an issue going forward, and called for a site that, like the old-media warhorse Consumer Reports, put products through their paces. I wrote,
I am afraid that people looking for critiques of garbage cans, cellphones, wayfinding won’t find it on most design blogs. They will just find cuter cans, cells, signs. Design blogs tend to lapse male or female, toward gadgets or wallpaper. A new consumer reports might help to bridge the gender gap.I made my own stab at product review in this conversation on coffee makers for Gourmet: In the end I had to retreat to 1972 for the small-footprint under-cabinet model of my dreams, the Braun Aromaster KF 20. In The Sweethome, I think I have found the site I was looking for. And as it happens, Johnson and his colleagues have also been thinking about depth, gadgets, and the place of aesthetics in any discussion of home products, using Amazon product ratings and Consumer Reports' proprietary guides to narrow the field. (Excellent footnoting, too.)
Breville Smart Oven, The Sweethome's toaster oven pick.
What prompted you to launch a home products site? Was there something you reviewed, or couldn't review, on Wirecutter?
Joel Johnson: It was sort of the other way around: there were getting to be so many home products we were reviewing on Wirecutter that it felt like we should open up a site to contain them all. Plus some things, like towels or garden shears, just didn't make sense for a site like Wirecutter that is, at its core, about electronics.
What are the elements of the formula of The Wirecutter you are using for Sweethome?
JJ: The format is nearly identical: take as much time as we need to authoritatively answer the question "What is the best X?" And then present our selection in a way that is both easy to understand at a glance, while providing all of our research in the copy so readers can see how we landed on our choice.
Is there a different target audience for this site?
JJ: Not really! We think men and women need largely the same homewares, just as they need largely the same electronics. Everyone, no matter their gender, wants a product that works for the best price.
What did you find wanting in other review sites?
JJ: The biggest thing that's wanting in review sites is a selection. It's really, really hard to make a choice, especially as a publication, because you don't want to upset a reader by suggesting they buy a product that they're unhappy with. That's why most publications suggest a Top 3 or just a numeric rating. But that didn't reflect our experience in the real world, where our friends often come up to us and ask us to just tell them the thing they should buy.
Any products you were particularly eager to commission a review of? I hate my iron and the site pretty much sold me on the Rowenta.
JJ: Personally, I'm really excited about a guide to the best rice cooker, because I don't actually think I want a rice cooker! I'm something of a kitchen minimalist ("He said, looking at his juicer") so I've always thought rice cookers were bunkum. Yet I know some people adore theirs. So I'm looking forward to someone writing a guide that convinces me of their utility. I like the guides where I (as an editor) am skeptical that the product even needs to exist.
I notice you have to rely on a variety of existing sources, including heritage media like Consumer Reports to narrow the field. Why is this necessary?
JJ: If we're doing our job correctly, we're collating and parsing every single relevant bit of information out there to put in our guides. It's no more necessary in home products than in electronics. In fact, it's somewhat easier in homewares than in electronics, because some of the more established testing publications around—Consumer Reports, America's Test Kitchen, Good Housekeeping—are more rigorous and thorough than many of the more established electronics testing publications. We still double-check the selections of every source to which we refer, but on the whole we've found that reviews from the big home publications carry more water than most of the mainstream electronics publications.
Most of the review texts are quite long: have you found people need that much detail to purchase?
JJ: Some people don't need that much detail! I'm sure some people just read our selection and click buy. We're confident that our choice is good, so if that's what happens, no problem. (And we don't get any affiliate fees if someone returns a purchase, so there's a built-in incentive to get it right.) But it's also important to show how we landed on our choice. We like to think that if a shopper reads our guides all the way through that they'll be better equipped to make their own choice, even if they don't agree with our selection. Better to share our process of research and discovery with the reader and let them choose whether or not to read it!
What about aesthetics? How does design come in to discussing the qualities of home products?
JJ: Aesthetics are a factor, but pretty far down the chain. We'd never select a product that looks good but performs poorly. That said, if two products perform more or less identically but one look better, we might err toward the nicer looking one. And in items that you have to use a lot or sit on your counter out in plain sight, something pleasing to the eye is always welcome.
As for the infamous "how it feels in the hand," that's probably an even bigger deal than visual aesthetics. We selected our vegetable peeler in part because it has a comfortable heft, even though a cheaper runner-up arguably performs nearly as well. Picking a product always comes down to balancing all the factors worth considering, and aesthetics is in the mix.