Monday, October 18, 2010

Writing a Software Review

Michael Salsbury
As someone who works with computers and software on a daily basis, I've read a lot of software reviews as a part of my job.  As a gamer and computer hobbyist in my spare time, I've read a lot more.  I've also written my fair share of software reviews and analyses for work and various web site ventures over the years.

Several months ago, I analyzed a large number of software reviews from a variety of sources.  This included magazines, leading computer web sites like CNet and PC World, and informal reviews posted by hobbyists on web forums.  From that analysis, I compiled a structure for software reviews and a variety of tips for doing a fairly professional job of reviewing a software product.

Software Review Structure

I used a mind mapping tool to help me organize my thoughts and observations.  In the end, I decided that software reviews should follow the basic structure outlined below:

    • A “50-foot view” or very short overview of the review results

    • Description of the software (its purpose, functionality)

    • The installation process

    • The user interface

    • What the software is like to use

    • How it compares with other products

    • How it compares with previous versions of itself

    • What its documentation and tech support is like

    • How it’s licensed and if demo/trial versions exist

    • What its technical specs are

    • What the specs are of the system you used to review the software

    • A conclusion summarizing the good and bad of the software

All of these parts aren’t necessary for every software review you do.  For example, if you’re looking at a program that has no competitors and you’re not familiar with its earlier versions, you wouldn’t bother to include a comparison to other products or to earlier versions.  Still, your goal will be to include as many of the above sections as you can authoritatively speak to.

Detailed Software Review Structure

For each of the points in the basic structure, I’ve developed a list of questions to ask yourself (and details you may want to include) to make sure you cover that particular point thoroughly.  Again, not all of these will apply to every review.  Think of them as a guideline.  Include what you think is relevant and useful for the package you’re reviewing, and leave out the stuff that’s not applicable, useful, or worth the time to research.

Below is the “fully expanded upon” list of points in the basic review structure:

  • A “50-foot view” or very short overview of the review results

    • This should be just a very short list of bullet points, no complete sentences, and with the minimum number of words necessary to share the information.  Think of it as “If I had 15 seconds to tell someone about this software, what would I say to them?”

    • What are the product’s strengths, highlights, or best features?

    • What are the product’s weaknesses, problems, or frustrating details?

    • In 2-3 sentences, what would you tell someone who wants to buy this product or one like it?

    • This can include a 5-star or x-out-of-10 rating if you want it to

  • Description of the software (its purpose, functionality)

    • What does it do?

    • What features does it include?

  • The installation process

    • How long does it take to install?

    • Were there any problems installing it and getting it working?

    • Does it have any copy protection?

    • If there is copy protection, is it convenient or frustrating to work with?

    • Does it uninstall cleanly if you decide to remove it?

  • The user interface

    • Is it intuitive to use, or did you need to consult the help or manual?

    • Can keyboard shortcuts, menus, etc., be customized to suit your needs?

    • Does the interface look modern or “dated”?

  • What the software is like to use

    • How long does it take to launch the software and make it usable?

    • What file formats does it read and/or write?

    • Is there anything you found annoying about using it?

    • Is there anything you found especially fun or cool about using it?

    • Are there plug-ins, extensions, themes, or other “add-ons” you can get for it?

    • Did you find any security concerns (e.g., passwords stored in visible text form)?

    • Are there ample keyboard shortcuts?

    • Did you run into any glitches?

    • Does it integrate well with other products?

    • Is it easy to get patches/updates and install them?

    • Is any kind of automation built-in (scripts, macros, etc.)?

    • How long does it typically take you to do whatever it is the software does?

  • How it compares with other products

    • Do they have features this product doesn’t?

    • Does it have features they don’t?

    • Is the other product easier, harder, or about the same to use?

    • Is it more or less expensive than the other product?

    • How do the other products technical requirements (CPU, RAM, etc.) compare?

    • What’s the other product’s “footprint” (RAM, CPU, hard disk usage) in comparison?

    • Is it faster or slower than the competitor?

  • How it compares with previous versions of itself

    • What features have been added in this version?

    • Have any features been taken away?

    • Are any existing features harder to use now?

    • Are any existing features easier to use now?

    • How do the technical specifications compare with the old version?

    • How does the user interface compare?

    • Is it faster or slower than previous versions?

  • What its documentation and tech support is like

    • Is the manual thorough?

    • Is the manual easy to understand?

    • Is tech support available?

    • How do you access tech support?

    • Is there an online knowledgebase on the manufacturer’s web site?

    • Were tech support staff professional, courteous, and helpful?

    • How much support comes with the product, if any?

    • Does there seem to be a big user community? (Search for web forums, newsgroups, or mailing lists where people share information about the software.)

  • How it’s licensed and if demo/trial versions exist

    • Is it commercial, shareware, or freeware?

    • What are the license terms?

    • Is a trial or demo version available? If so, what’s missing from the trial/demo?  How long does the trial/demo last?

    • What does it cost to license?

    • Who sells licenses to the software, and who develops it?

    • Are there multiple variants (e.g., Basic, Advanced, and Pro versions)?  If so, consider a table showing which features are in which variant to help readers identify which one they need.

  • What its technical specs are

    • CPU required, recommended

    • RAM required, recommended

    • Hard disk space required, recommended

    • Peripherals required, recommended

    • Operating system(s) supported and versions supported (e.g., Windows 2000/XP/Vista, Mac OS X 10.3 through 10.5)

    • Does it need a network connection?

    • Does it need anything else not specifically listed above?

  • What the specs are of the system you used to review the software

    • CPU, RAM, hard disk, optical drive, video card, OS, etc.

    • How did the review system compare to the recommended specs

  • A conclusion summarizing the good and bad aspects of the software

    • This should be about a paragraph or two long and summarizes the highlights of all the above points.  It should finish with a recommendation (or not) for the software relative to what you get for the money, how well it does what it’s supposed to do, and so forth.

If you manage to follow this basic structure, you’ll write a review that’s thorough, detailed, and useful.  Your readers should find pretty much whatever they’re looking for in that review.

The above structure probably would not work well for video games or hardware.  It’s oriented more toward application software and utilities.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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