Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #213:

Collective Choice: Ratings Ease of Use, Part Two

by Shannon Appelcline

In my last article I introduced a discussion of ease of use in ratings. Therein I offered the hypothesis that increasing the ease with which a ratings consumer can access ratings and can manage and manipulate other data based on those ratings will ultimately increase the usefulness of your ratings system.

In this article I want to talk about another sort of rating user: the rater. Here I don't think increasing ease of use is universally good, because changing his usability can bias the sort of ratings that get entered into your system.

To underline this point I'm going to offer two ease of use issues: one somewhat mixed and one definitely negative.

Ease of Rating

It need hardly be said that universally making it easier for legitimate raters to rate items is a win. You increase the breadth of your ratings and thus their trust. However, you have to be careful about increasing the ease of rating to just some users, because doing so can notably bias your system.

If you have an iPhone, you probably already know that you're given an option to rate an app when you delete it. I can't think of a much better way to bias ratings downward, as people will usually delete an app because they no longer like it. I think this is a fine example of a situation when increased ease of use for a rater can be bad.

Contrariwise, I offer up the newest twist in eBay's rating system. As of several months ago whenever you try to make a negative rating, eBay brings up a page where you swear that you've tried to contact the seller and resolve the dispute.

That's right, if a seller sends you a water-damaged book because he's too lazy to even look at the products he's shipping out (and this is all a true story, I'll note), eBay no longer wants you to flag him for future users. By decreasing ease of rating (by making it harder to rate things negatively), they've notably decreased the trustworthiness of their system.

So, though Apple's ease of use could cause problems, eBay would improve their rating system if they opened their raters' ease of rating back up (to where it used to be, where they threatened you just a little for inputting a negative rating).

Ease of Retraction

Both eBay and Amazon have been slowly moving in a direction that looks to me to be to the benefit of the sellers and to the detriment of their consumers. Limiting the ease of bad ratings offers a fine example of how eBay has been biasing their ratings in this direction. However, I think their increasing the ease of retractions does a similar amount of damage.

To explain further: both Amazon and eBay now give the rater a way to retract his negative ratings after he's made them. It's usually just a single click. Sellers have increasingly taken advantage of this, particularly on Amazon, whose seller culture is much more corporate than eBay's. More and more if you ever input a bad rating, you'll get an email, perhaps largely automated, that asks you to retract the rating, perhaps in exchange for a full or partial refund.

The consumer usually sees this as a good thing, as it largely makes up for the problems that he had. Unfortunately, it can also erase any trace of those problems for future consumers. On eBay, you're at least offered the opportunity to input a new rating, so you can change your negative rating about water damage into a positive rating that says something like, "Had some problems with quality of book, but seller quickly offered a refund." On Amazon, however, your negative rating just disappears.

Sadly, this is resulting in marketplaces that are increasingly less trustworthy. I find that perhaps 10-20% of books that I get off of Amazon have some problem with them. Some are clearly ongoing problems, such as when a trade paperback comic sent to me ends up bent because the seller used poor shipping materials. However, because there's no record of past retracted comments, I often can't see that sort of problem ahead of time.

There's a simple solution to the problems caused by the ease of retracting: an ease of viewing retractions for the consumer. If I just could see that besides the 2% bad ratings that a seller is getting that they also had 5% retracted ratings, that'd tell me a lot.


I think this last example offers a good look at what I've been talking about in these last two articles: how increasing ease of use for a rater can be an iffy prospect, depending on what you're doing, while increasing ease of use for a consumer of your ratings is almost always beneficial--and in fact can sometimes offset the problems caused by the first.

So think about ease of use when you're designing your rating systems, but do so with a little care.

[ <— #212: Collective Choice: Ratings Ease of Use, Part One ]

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