The Tyranny of the Outlier

Recently, I’ve been reading and thinking about user reviews a lot. I’ve been looking at user reviews for a lot of things: backup software, the new laptops and products we purchased, Best Buy Geek Squad. In general, when you read these reviews, you see lots and lots of negative, and very little in the way of positive. This mirrors what you see in the comments on news articles: most are harshly critical of the actions; there are few that are supportive. All these negative user reviews truly color the user experience: you begin to feel that your service won’t be done right, that your product will certainly fail, that you made a poor purchasing decision, that our country is on the way to rack and ruin, &c.

I’ve had enough of this. This is the tyranny of the outlier: where the tail ends of the bell curve seem to have greater influence than they deserve. We’re talking about the rare few with problems here—a fact that is usually forgotten (just as most of the folks commenting on the news articles don’t represent the bulk of the populace). For every negative comment, there are orders of magnitude more of people who had a positive experience and haven’t bothered to comment. Best Buy’s Geek Squad is a great example of this. Do a web search, and you’ll see complaint after complaint. You’ll be hard pressed to find positive comments, although you can find them if you look hard. Yet they process thousands of systems every day in an impressive operation, and the vast majority of people are satisfied with their service. Best Buy wouldn’t keep Geek Squad around if they didn’t satisfy the customer—say what you want, but Best Buy survives by satisfying the vast majority of the customers (not all, but the vast majority). I just had a Geek Squad service on my laptop. My system came back working just fine before the “promised by” date. The disk wasn’t wiped. The applications were still there. About the only significant difference is they removed the password on my account (and I can understand that from the ease of service point of view). They didn’t add any software. Most importantly: they appear to have fixed the problem. The same, I’m sure, is the experience that most people bringing in their products have.

I’m sure the situation is similar with backup programs. You read the reviews, because there is no independent assessment group like Consumers Union. Yet there are always the user reviews that state that one product trashed their system, or that this other product didn’t work (with little further explanation). We forget that if the product isn’t a a niche product with sales in the double digits, there are likely a significant number of sales with customers that are quite happy with the product: it works as advertised and does what it promises to do. Yes, there is that one lemon out there—that one installation where the combination of factors makes the product not work. But that’s not the vast majority of cases. In the vast majority of cases, the product does what it claims to do.

This is what we forget. These companies wouldn’t be staying in business if they were not satisfying their customers. The products wouldn’t be sold. The service organizations would be gone. If there is a lot of use of the product in the marketplace… if there are a lot of sales… they must be satisfying a bunch of customers. This doesn’t mean there won’t be some that aren’t happy. That happens with anything technical. Nothing is 100%. But if they are doing 80-90%, they’re doing good.

The outliers make us forget this. They make us think about, and worry about, the rare problems. They are like the TV medical dramas: they make us believe that the little symptom represents some rare deathly disease. We must fight this tyranny of the outliers. It’s easy. When you get a product or service and you’re satisfied with it, write a positive user review. Let companies and people know they are doing something right, and pass this information on to your friends. Let’s emphasize the positive, instead of just focusing on the negative.

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