Opinion: The Difficulty Behind a “Simple” Recommendation

I suppose now that I do have my PhD, it’s time for me to wax lyrical about some of my thoughts and opinions. In this posting, I’ll be addressing the difficulty behind a “simple” recommendation – because everyone has time to answer a random question from a random stranger, right? Incidentally, while I was on holidays, most of the messages I received were requests to recommend products or services or to discuss about them at length. Rather unsurprisingly, I left most of them unanswered.

The “Simple” Request

“Hi there. I see you’ve written about X, so you must know. I was wondering, what product would you recommend I buy? How about Y? Thanks.”

“What’s the best Z on the market at the moment?”

Congratulations. As a consumer spoilt by choice, you have a dilemma (or more) on your hands. You want a particular product, but you don’t know which one is best for you. Maybe you’ve done some searches online and things seem confusing. The specs look the same, but the prices are different. Maybe the reviews also look good, but maybe they’re not even real. In your desperation, you’ve found someone who looks like he/she might know something about it and decide to ask.

After all, it’s a simple question. I can even fit it into a paragraph. It shouldn’t take them a minute to answer it, right?

Problem 1: The (Incomplete) Question

You might think I’m exaggerating when I say that I have received a good number of e-mails with questions formatted like the ones above, but I’m not. As any engineer knows, if you can’t precisely delineate the problem you are trying to solve, you will end up with solutions that won’t meet your needs. It’s like asking someone for “something to cut hair with”, they tell you to go buy a pair of scissors, but really, you’re trying to shear a whole flock of sheep. Not very good advice, right?

As a result, it’s very frustrating to be asked general overarching questions where the requester has obviously not given their problem any thought. This is the easiest way to get ignored, or to get the same advice over and over, or even just plain wrong advice.

Instead, one should probably be more specific – things to think about might be:

  • What sort of product are you looking for?
  • What are you going to do with the product?
  • How is the product going to be used? Is there any specific unusual application involved?
  • What qualities do you demand above that of the “average” product?
  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • Where are you willing to shop or what alternatives do you have to choose from?
  • Are there any that you have already considered and ruled out? Why? Why not?
  • What sort of information are you really after – do you want a recommendation between a few limited choices of products, do you want alternatives or anecdotal experiences, or do you want something else entirely?

So maybe a much more useful question would be:

“I’m looking for a hard drive, no smaller than 8Tb, that I can use in a RAID5 or RAID6 array of at least 10 drives. It must have 7200RPM spindle speed because I need high throughput, and also needs to have a 5-year warranty for reliability reasons. It will be put into an industrial environment, but we’ve got a pretty tight budget of no more than AU$500 per drive. I’ve considered the WD Red Pro and the Seagate Ironwolf Pro, but I’m wondering if there’s any reason to prefer one over the other, whether there’s any reason to step up to enterprise grade drives or whether there are any cheaper alternatives which might meet my needs?”

Isn’t it much clearer now, what the requester wants? With this information, you’re helping your advisers get you the information you want without wasting their time on things that aren’t important. For example – nobody’s going to recommend a WD Green or a Seagate Archive drive on the basis you want it to be in a RAID array. Likewise, with a firm budget, nobody’s going to be recommending a WD Gold or a Seagate Exos either, unless they’ve got a good bargain for you. It’s also much clearer that you’ve put the thought into your problem and that you’re motivated to find a solution.

Problem 2: The Motivation

Whenever I get a question in my inbox, just before I breathe out a big sigh and delete it, there is a brief moment where I feel flattered. After all, if someone’s decided to send me a question, they have placed their trust in me to help solve their problem in their best interests.

But things are not that simple, because a request for recommendation isn’t as simple as it seems. I have met a number of requesters of different types (not all mutually exclusive), which all have their own agenda:

  • The Genuine – these people really want to solve a problem and have done their homework. They’re just making sure they haven’t overlooked anything major, or made a rookie mistake, and they take your advice on board bearing full responsibility for any decisions they make.
  • The Market Researcher – these people might have a problem, but they also have an insane fear of making the wrong decision and regretting it, so they ask as many people as they can by bombing them with the same question to harvest as many answers as possible. But in their haste, they also like to pit recommendations against each other, resulting in a bit of a war of finer points which wears everyone down in the end. They’re just too afraid to make the decision on their own.
  • The Blame Sharer – these people might start off with a genuine problem, but in the end, they’re incapable of taking any responsibility for any purchasing decisions. Instead, they will seek your recommendation and approval to buy a product, and from then on, any issues which arise will suddenly become yours to solve.
  • The Debater – these people have absolutely nothing to do but to start an argument with you because they can’t understand why you think highly of “Product O”. They spend all day refuting your arguments and instead trying to convince themselves that their choice of “Product N” is the only logical choice and that all “Product O” owners are nuts.
  • The Time-Wasting Self-Reinforcer – these people have very general overarching requests, but they don’t detail their needs. You go back and forth recommending products, and they will come up with “new” constraints to exclude them. Similar to “The Debater”, they seem to know the answer before they even started and just want to hear it from someone else.
  • The Doesn’t Want to Know at All – these seem to have absolutely zero knowledge on the area, and just want a quick answer to their question with no thought whatsoever. As a result, they write vague questions (sometimes technically non-sensical ones) and expect a straightforward non-technical answer when none exists. Then, they get frustrated and take it out on you.
  • The “Askhole” – these people ask just for the sake of asking, but never take anything you say on-board. In fact, sometimes they even go to the lengths of just doing the exact opposite of what you advise, just to see what happens. Kind of a “troll” requester.

There are probably more types, although they evade my mind at this exact instant. Regardless, it’s clear that no matter what the type of requester, a request for advice almost always favours the requester. There’s often very little to nothing in the way of a reward for the adviser – and worse still, often there is a lack of respect for an adviser. There really isn’t much motivation for an adviser to give a recommendation, but there are some exceptions.

In what seems to be a growing trend, “social influencers” and “trend leaders” seem to be overly happy to dole out free advice. These have even become roles within companies, with names such as “Brand Ambassador” or sponsorships given to individuals to promote given products. There are also cases where people are given free products in exchange for positive reviews on major shopping sites, and other cases where astroturfing campaigns both inflate good reviews for a given product with fake praise and sabotage competitors with false criticisms. In light of this, the disrespect for advisers may be understandable – free advice may need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Things get worse when money gets involved. In another growing trend of affiliate link spam (which I am also a victim of, and take steps to remove), products are recommended only because the adviser gets a commission when products are purchased through their link.

As a result, because of this, it can be difficult for laymen to separate fake reviews from real reviews, and unbiased advice from self-serving drivel. However, if people do not learn to cultivate their own “critical” senses, they will continue to be deceived and reliant on others to do the “filtering” for them.

Problem 3: Practical Knowledge Limits of an Individual

If a request has passed the barriers above, it’s not doing too bad. But unfortunately, advisers are not without their faults too. No one individual is able to know everything, and thus, the advice they can give is necessarily limited.

For example, as a hobbyist with a “student-sized” budget and limited needs, it would not be possible to buy every single item on the market for a given type and test it. Believe me, I’ve tried. But even then, if you’re in another market, the choices you have are entirely different. How can I recommend a product that I haven’t touched, tested or even seen?

There is the other issue that the markets continually evolve as new products and revisions are released to market. What may have been trustworthy at release may develop issues as they age, and recommendations may have to be withdrawn on such basis. Honestly speaking, unless I just so happen to be interested in buying a product from a given market at around the same time, I probably have absolutely no idea what the latest models are like (even on paper) and how they compare. After all, it’s not my job to know about everything!

Too many people seem not to recognize their limits in terms of their experiences, and blindly give recommendations without doing the necessary confirmatory research to ensure their views are valid. As a result, in some cases, genuine requests for advice turn into a “voting” match with advisers giving a recommendation with absolutely zero reasoning, and requesters going with the consensus.

Problem 4: At What Cost?

Then we come to the whole problem of costs. Most of the time, the requester thinks they have a simple question that would take about five minutes to answer. But they don’t realize that things are a little more complex than that.

As an adviser, I would feel very bad if I gave out the wrong advice. This is, as I’m led to understand, a conscience (I hope you have one too). As a result of this, I have to make sure that the advice I give is sound, reasonable, technically supported, well-reasoned, and defensible. Part of doing that is spending time researching someone else’s problem. That takes more than five minutes, I can assure you, but it’s also what I need to do to ensure I keep the trust between me and the requester, and my reputation, both of which are priceless. It can also result in times where problems stay in the back of my mind, nagging me, making me worried. The anxiety is, in itself, intolerable when multiplied by the tens or more e-mails I might be receiving on a weekly basis. After all, there is a bit of power asymmetry here – there are seemingly more requesters than advisers.

Most of the time, the result is that I might give a piece of advice, but in doing so, it has consumed a disproportionately large part of my resources to deliver. It’s not personally worth fielding these questions on a personal level, as I have a life to live as well. The worst part is when a recommendation comes back to bite me in the behind, as when things go wrong and I get blamed, but ultimately, the recommendation was sound given the information given to me at the time.

Further to that, some people have offered enticements in the form of a “paid” advisory role. However, I’m not sure how serious they are, as often many of these requests are not genuine and entail undertaking liability. It’s better not to open myself up to being sued …

I suppose this is why I recommend people with genuine issues post comments on relevant pages or (better yet) frequently visited forums that centre on the topic. That has the advantage of allowing the requester to gain multiple responses to their problems from different perspectives, and saves one person from having to do all the work. The downside is that you will get answers from a larger and more varied audience with different levels of experience and expertise.

Problem 5: Will They Even Care?

The biggest annoyance happens when you’ve fired off a well-reasoned recommendation and immediately get refuted by the requester thinking that they know better. Sometimes this is because they have an over-reliance of on-paper specifications, some of which are entirely meaningless, or they have someone else’s advice they respect more than yours and wish to provoke a response or an admission of sorts. Others never really intended for advice, and wanted their own preferences validated.

When met with this sort of futility, it’s hard to justify even putting the effort in to personalize a reply to those who request a recommendation. Unfortunately, this leads to “bad advice” in the form of a “generic” recommendation. For example – if someone wants to ask me about which power bank to buy, I could easily send back a one liner saying “Xiaomi products are great.” But if they’re away from a physical store, they could end up with a counterfeit or maybe they’re intending it for low-current usage where the auto-shut-off might make it completely unusable for them. As a result, I won’t send out generic recommendations, even if they might seem to be an obvious low-cost response.

Problem 6: Encouraging Bad Habits

I suppose the bigger issue at hand is that providing recommendations helps form bad habits. I like to compare it with feeding pigeons – once you’ve done it once or twice, they keep coming back since they know there’s food. They then grow a dependency on you to provide the food, and an expectation that you will continue to do so. The day you choose not to share the chips is the day you’ll get pecked on the ear.

In the modern era that we live in, the term “information overload” gets thrown around as a “magical” excuse for ignorance. From my perspective, it’s hard to see this as a problem in light of all the advantages it brings. A large pool of freely available information with relatively liberal rules about what is allowed to be posted is a large resource of (potentially) honest feedback and insight into the thoughts of others. It takes some time to develop the critical thinking to rapidly filter incoming information for relevance and pick up on hints as to its reliability, but if you don’t start somewhere, you’re missing out and are just relying on someone else to do the thinking for you. That’s laziness in another word.

Take the time to clarify all constraints, requirements and foreseeable issues; to understand the changes in product design, important comparison points and design issues involved. Learn to filter information and get a sense of how detailed and reputable it is, and how likely you might encounter any issues. There is no perfect product, just as there is no perfect review.

It’s one of the reasons why I choose to write reviews where I pass some of my judgement about a product. But more than that, I provide some tests which provide data which may be of interest in comparisons, and to back up my claims. The data itself has the power to answer many questions, but also allows you to compare with other results to determine reliability and compare with other products I haven’t had a chance to test. Then you can arrive at the decision yourself for your particular circumstances.

If all else fails, understand that all products exist to target a market and sometimes buying it and trying it is the only way to know if it will really meet your needs (especially for strange applications). Someone’s got to be the guinea pig! Some products will have problems, that might cost you time and energy, but bugging someone else in the hope that they too won’t make a similar mistake isn’t a particularly good strategy in the long run.

After you gain the knowledge, maybe it’s time to give back by writing a detailed review and posting it where others can decide for themselves whether the information is useful to them or not in their decision-making process.

Conclusion

Providing advice, such as a recommendation, is more than just a few hollow words. There is an element of trust involved from the side of the requester that you will deliver advice which is well-reasoned, well-researched, well-supported and appropriately considers the needs of the requester. To do this without falling into “generic” poorly-considered recommendations, or into self-interests where there is some sort of “advantage” for the adviser is an expectation. There is also an assumed risk, as now, the adviser is involved in the decision-making process of the requester and ultimately (whether they like to or not) shares the burden of any decisions made.

The job of the adviser is difficult. It is complicated by being made involved in a problem where all the information may not be apparent, where the questions may be incomplete, where the constraints may not be well detailed and where the adviser may not be confident that they are in the right position to give the advice being requested. It’s very easy for a well-meaning adviser to provide advice that ultimately would be considered by others to be inappropriate, with consequences for everyone. It’s also easy for an adviser to overestimate their knowledge in a given area, or dismiss valid alternatives based on a lack of experience. Regardless of this, if an adviser is kind enough to consider your problem, they have spent time and energy researching something which they might have better spent on something else!

If you’re a clueless person looking for a simple answer, I have some sympathy for you. After all, the world (as a whole) is getting less and less transparent, and thus it is easy to come across fake recommendations (e.g. reviews commissioned by companies, affiliate links that earn the adviser some money) which are sometimes in quite large numbers. To have found someone you respect to provide advice seems a logical person to consult.

However, it’s also important to realize that giving out advice isn’t free – it costs my time, energy and reputation to provide. As a result, I’ll have to apologize – I won’t generally offer any recommendations on specific products for your specific problem. Please do not contact me via any means asking for such recommendations as they will go unanswered. I simply do not have the time to dole out advice.

That is why I provide the reviews about products I have owned, used, torn-apart, repaired, etc. online, free of charge. These reviews document the aspects of the products I have tested and the conditions they were tested under. This is the raw underlying information you can use to compare with information you obtain elsewhere or information about other options to arrive at a decision. In this way, if I don’t cover something relevant to you, you can go and find someone that does. If I do, then you can compare it with someone else. At the end of the day, it is immaterial to me whether you use the information or not, but I hope that the information proves useful.

The bigger overarching message is that if you’re looking for advice, it’s probably best you take some time to educate yourself and do the research yourself. The internet is vast and filled with resources – don’t be so lazy as to expect someone else to do the work for you and deprive you of the reward of learning something. If you do, that’s great – then it may be time to share that with the rest of the internet.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

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