One time when I went to the Tacoma Weekend, I sang a song by the band Badfinger called “Come And Get It.” Now, I happen to be quite a fan of Badfinger as a band . The song “Come And Get It,” the band’s earliest hit, was gift-wrapped to them as a song written by Paul McCartney for a movie soundtrack that happened to make fun of the gullibility of people. It’s not my favorite song by the band, but it happened to be the only one that particular song list had from the band. Even so, the message of the song is deeply ironic and deeply important, as it showed the band trying to capitalize on success by being mentored and groomed by the Beatles. How could such a thing go wrong? And yet it did go wrong, horribly wrong, and the band lost its two main songwriters to self-destruction over the course of the 1970’s. Caught up in the drama that destroyed Apple Records as well as their own thieving shyster of a manager, the band ended up destroying itself in internal conflict as it couldn’t record its way out of trouble.
From time to time I am asked to participate in surveys. At times I find these surveys to be an excellent opportunity to rip into companies I view as simply terrible, but much of the time the surveys relate to products and services I have enjoyed a good deal. For example, just this afternoon I received a survey about a dinner I had last night, and I had mostly good things to say about my experience, the only thing less than optimal aside from having to walk a lot on my hobbled feet to refill my water being the lack of selection among baked goods, which wasn’t possible to answer until the very last question. What was most important to me as a customer were not questions that the survey makers were even asking, and what they wanted to know about was not really of the biggest interest to me.
This is a common problem. Most people who construct surveys are not really interested in what people think, at least not as much as they think they are or profess to be. What they are interested in is how people think they are doing along particularly narrow lines of reasoning or thinking. A restaurant may be interested in knowing how clean one thought the restaurant to be. They may not be thinking at all about how restrictive the menu is, or what items people would want to order that are not available. That question may never even enter their minds. The goal of many surveys is simply to demonstrate to oneself as well as to others that one is doing a good enough job, defined by a score of 4 or above on a five-point Lickert scale, signifying a mostly positive view to a very positive view by the taker of the survey, which is judged to be a customer or consumer of some kind. If that score is met, everyone tends to feel happy and pat themselves on the back, because the metrics worked out well.
The alternative to quantitative analysis of such scores as is common on surveys is to ask open-ended questions in an attempt to draw out what someone is thinking. Yet this is a difficult task because many people–I know this is often true of me–comment little or nothing in those open spaces where impossibly broad questions are asked. There is, on the one hand, open-ended questions that are so broad as to greatly discourage participation and make thoughtful messages hard to deliver, and narrow questions that do not give information that the people making surveys may want to know but may not know how to ask or even that they need to ask it. How are we to bridge the gap by asking questions that are broader than strongly agree to strongly disagree but less broad than “Did you have a problem during your last visit?”
The goal, in other words, is to have a conversation with the person who is taking the survey. How do we turn a survey from gathering information from people who are impatient and inattentive and even a bit skeptical about how the information is being gathered to something that genuinely informs us about what others really think and feel? How do we cease to act as if we are trying to puff ourselves up or gather information the way a dentist pulls recalcitrant teeth and act as if we want to have a conversation and start to act as if we want to understand others through a conversation that is as personal as possible? I suppose that is the trick of survey creators, and that is disguising the attempt to simply gather information and put it in nice-looking charts and graphs by putting it in a form that actually responds to what others want to share. There are many people who are dying for opportunities to share what they think and feel with other people, if only someone will listen to them. Will we?
 See, for example: