03 April 2017 - Simple solutions to complex problems. This was the mantra that Associate Professor Tan Chuan Hoo kept returning to in the discussion of his paper, Sequentiality of Product Review Information Provision: An Information Foraging Perspective, which was published in MIS Quarterly in 2016.

To start, Tan spoke animatedly about how his research philosophy of creating simple innovations to solve problems took root at a young age. “I started learning programming at the age of 13 and I liked writing codes. Programming is like problem-solving. When you learn programming, you’re in fact learning how to solve problems using codes.”

It was also this fascination with solving problems that drove Tan to study product reviews, one of the many topics in the field of design science. Admitting that he does a fair bit of shopping online, he often finds himself confused by the plethora and complexity of reviews on online shopping websites like Amazon.com and Taobao.com, which makes deciding on purchases difficult. “Some of these reviews are about the products’ features while others are about user experience. Hence, there is a need to process and categorize all these pieces of information for the user to make a decision.” Tan added that new shopping websites tend to imitate what established ones have done to replicate the best practices, but he cautioned that doing this indiscriminately means that the downsides are copied as well.

Sequentiality of Product Review Information Provision was the result of this desire to solve a common phenomenon that Tan has observed in his research: online shoppers are often inundated with too much information about products. Tan learnt that consumers use two types of product reviews sequentially. When screening multiple products, they first refer to reviews about the products’ features in order to construct mental representations of the choices they have. Once consumers have an idea of the features they want, they will subsequently read reviews about other users’ experiences with the product to make the ultimate decision about which product best fits their needs.

Tan believes that one of the major advantages of his research is that companies and consumers do not need to be versed in complex algorithms to implement his findings, as they are easy to understand. This, he added, is in line with his research philosophy of simple solutions to problems. The same philosophy underlies his teaching. IS6103 Design Science Research in IS, a module that he is conducting this semester, introduces students to problem-based solution development, as well as the principles behind design science.

Building on the findings of this paper, Tan is currently looking at online review mechanisms where products are assigned numeric values and how these can be tweaked. “Let’s say a product receives a review value of 4.2 out of 5. How is this number derived?” he asked, “A consistent value of 4.2 could trigger concerns of fake reviews.” Tan added that fake reviews are usually not regular or continuous and often only appear in high volumes when a product is first introduced into the market. Hence, numeric values in and of themselves are not meaningful enough for consumers to make decisions about whether to purchase products or not unless they are provided with information about the distribution of the values across a particular time period.

Tan said, “Online reviews are and continue to be an important quality cue to prospective buyers in the digital world. Given the increasingly voluminous review content, establishing correspondence between the types of reviews and the different shopping phases will be beneficial to consumers’ decision-making process.” As online shopping becomes more widespread and more products are sold online, the problem of consumers having too much information about products is likely to persist, if not worsen. Tan’s research findings, however, offer clarity to consumers navigating the sometimes bewildering world of online shopping. If these findings are ultimately implemented by businesses, consumers might experience more pleasant and seamless online shopping in the not-so-distant future.