Sunday, October 26, 2014

Want my feedback? I've had it with surveys

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on DallasNews.com. Please check out the site.
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In my tweens and early teens, I had the typical jobs of the original MTV generation. I mowed lawns, although probably not well, and I delivered newspapers, although definitely not well. (Extra! Extra! Read all about it: your paper might be in the bushes, or on the roof, or somewhere in the nativity scene you set up for Christmas).

A much more exciting job, which I had sporadically over a couple of years, was as a market research consultant. That sounds less impressive when described as “guy who gets paid to eat stuff,” but it was in that role that I helped bring to the American consumer – ta-da! – Hot Pockets.

Yes, I really contributed to one of the most iconic microwaveable products to ever burn the top of your mouth. You’re welcome. And I’m sorry.

Obviously, this Hot Pockets role requires more explanation. But first, although this might seem like a no-signal turn to another subject, won’t you please take this brief survey to help us improve your Humor Me reading experience?


Take a bite ... and then we'll have 100 questions.
On a scale ranging from one, for very high, to five, for very low, how would you rate your level of satisfaction with the column so far? Also, using the same one-to-five scale, how would rate your level of frustration with a column that asks a series of annoying survey questions?

I’ll stop before you begin suffering from survey fatigue, which is a real thing – and becoming common in a world that constantly asks for our opinion.
 
* * *

Every business wants feedback. Surveys come in the mail, they pop up on websites, and they’re bundled with products. Contact customer service for something, and after waiting 10 minutes because of “unexpectedly high call volume,” you’ll probably be asked to take a survey.

After online purchases, merchants almost stalk you with requests for feedback. Sometimes you’re asked to give feedback on the product and then also answer questions about the shipping. And, while you’re at it, won’t you please rate the packaging?

No, sorry. I don’t have time. The restaurant I went to for lunch would like my feedback, and I get a dollar off my next meal if I cooperate. Also, my auto dealership would like to know if I was “highly satisfied” with my last oil change.

Yeah, I guess so. I rarely give much thought to my oil-change satisfaction levels.

I do know that businesses are giving the surveys a lot of thought. They keep firing them at us, so the data must be valuable. But I wonder how accurate the feedback is once we are pushed into “respondent fatigue,” a term used by survey creators and analysts.

Respondent fatigue is what happens when a survey participant gets tired and his or her responses degrade in quality. It’s what was happened to me as a prepubescent research consultant.

It started off great. Ten bucks was a lot for me in the 1980s, and all I had to do was give feedback on microwaveable foods such as cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches and what would become known as the Hot Pocket. I had no idea research could be so tasty, as well as greasy enough to ignite my great teenage war on pimples.

* * *

But then I had to start rating everything, and I mean everything. The crust, the cheese, the meat, the sauce, the saltiness, and even the aroma of the item before and after I started eating it. There were pages and pages of questions asking me to bubble in ratings for the texture of everything, and the amount of seasoning and whether something was too moist or too dry. I think I even had to rate the appearance of the “crisping sleeve” that held the Hot Pocket in the microwave.

It was mind-numbing. I stopped giving my answers a lot of thought, and while I don’t think I went totally rogue and randomly selected A, B, C or D, my responses certainly degraded in quality. Respondent fatigue hit hard.

And now it hits us all, at least in some way.

I don’t want to add to the fatigue, so I won’t ask any more survey questions. That might prevent me from getting some valuable information, but on a scale of one to five, with one being very important and five being not important at all, how would I rate that information?

I better end this. Now I’m giving myself respondent fatigue.
 
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