A Cautionary Tale about Surveys

Posted on by Larry

I had an interesting “learning” experience this week that I wanted to share with you.

At the end of each of my seminars, and most of my classes for that matter, I hand out a survey to everyone attending. This gives me immediate feedback on what they liked, or what they want improved; with lots and lots of suggestions on what I should cover next.

Since everyone is still in the room, I get these two-page paper forms back from just about everyone. It takes a few minutes at the end, but basically is not a problem.

On my recent trip to the UK, knowing that our seminar attendance was going to set records, we decided that we wouldn’t bother toting a lot of paper forms with us, instead, once I got back in the office, we would email the survey to everyone that attended.

While this seemed like a good idea at the time, we had some problems, which is why I’m sharing this with you now.

We modified our standard two-page survey for the UK seminars and created a PDF with it. Over the last few weeks I’ve been playing with Acrobat PDF forms and discovered that Acrobat has some very nice tracking and tabulation software built into it, which makes sending and gathering PDF-based data very easy.

Our UK seminars struck me as a great time to test the technology. We told folks attending our seminars that we would be emailing them a survey, and some other goodies, so they would not be surprised when it arrived.

I did a test run with the people in my office and everything worked great – the PDFs emailed perfectly, the forms were filled out, sent back and tabulated automatically. Very cool.

Then, I sent them to all our UK attendees. At this point, things broke down.

What I did not realize, until I got dozens and dozens of emails were three key facts:
1. Email addresses change constantly.
1. Forms don’t work if you open them on a Mac using Preview. Forms require Acrobat.
2. Forms require recent versions of Acrobat, which many people don’t have.

We held our UK seminars less than three weeks ago, but in that time easily 15-20% of our audience (in this case mostly college kids) had changed email addresses.

Then, more than half opened the forms in Preview, which doesn’t support form data well and lacks the crucial “Submit” button, which emails the completed form back to me. This meant that I was flooded with emails about how to send back a form with no submit button. Or how to save a form. Or how to complete the form.

In short, instead of getting a nearly 100% response, I’ll feel lucky if we can get 10%. Far, far less than I was expecting.

Acrobat is hugely useful in a wide variety of ways within our company — I can’t imagine living without it. However, because virtually everyone attending one of my seminars uses a Mac, and because the Mac defaults to opening Acrobat documents in Preview, this means that most people trying to complete the survey are not going to be successful. And I don’t have the time to answer hundreds of emailed tech support questions about my survey.

The upshot of this is that, next time, we will either bring paper surveys or use a web-based survey engine, like SurveyMonkey, to get the answers we need.

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