in Opinion

The Wirecutter – On trust, and satisficing

I am a big fan of the consumer editorial site The Wirecutter. They earned a position in my stack of newsletter subscriptions for their help with simplifying tech purchasing decisions.

In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz lays out a dichotomy of people’s decision-making behaviour. Some people are maximizers—those who strive to make the optimal decision. Others are satisficers—those who make a decision as soon as it meets their criteria. Mr. Schwartz’s thesis is that satisficers are happier than maximizers in the long-run. Although their average decision is less optimal, it requires much less effort. Maximizer-behaviour is useful for high-stakes irreversible decisions, but most decisions are not like that. It is difficult to be a maximizer with the sheer volume of smaller decisions we face on a daily basis.

One example that can be surprisingly taxing is deciding what TV, camera, charger, BBQ, or washing machine to buy. You might have strong preferences about some of these, but it is more than likely that you are not familiar with most of the above product categories. Making a truly informed decision requires that you first familiarize yourself with the offerings in the market. Then you must prioritizing your own requirements and analyze each option, before coming to a decision. If you make the wrong decision and you will be reminded of it every time you use the product over the next few years.

Previously I have never trusted a single review to consider it more than a single data-point. Look up a review on Engagdet, Gizmodo, The Verge, and Cnet, and they often all offer conflicting opinions on the same product. But The Wirecutter is different.

First, the reviews are centred around user problems (Which X should I buy?) rather than tech solutions (Review of the new Z 2.0). The editor aggregates reviews from across the web on a select group of options and reports the results. This serves as a “one-stop” source of information instead of as a single data-point.

Second, each review leads with a summary of the recommendation and a link to buy on Amazon. But underneath this summary is a comprehensive breakdown of the logic behind that decision. There are sections such as Why you should trust us, Flaws but not deal-breakers as well as alternative recommendations based on niche use-cases.

On my first couple visits to The Wirecutter, I read the entire page—in classic maximizer behaviour. But after making a few purchasing decisions based on their advice, I have developed a great deal of trust in the editorial team from The Wirecutter. Now I often only skim the review—and if it is a less critical decision, I will simply buy their top recommendation without much extra thought. In a sense, it has allowed me to outsource the burden of “maximizing” tech purchasing decisions to a trusted third-party.

The ultimate test of trust in tech decisions is to ask yourself: “Would I recommend this to my mother?”. If you recommend the wrong product, you might find yourself fixing it or providing support for your next few Thanksgiving Dinners. For me, The Wirecutter has passed this test. Whenever Mom asks for advice on something I have no familiarity with (“Which dashcam should I buy?”), I just link her to The Wirecutter.