Voicing Opinions

VoxBox_sideThis morning I received an evaluation summary, via email, about a conference I gave a keynote at a few weeks ago. It presented lots of pie charts and collated all the comments attendees had cared to write up. I always dread reading this kind of feedback. A comment from a student on the very first course I taught at Sussex University has stuck with me ever since, etched permanently in my brain, “Yvonne needs to speak more loudly. Or get a microphone.” Not the worst or most critical of those that I have received over the years since, but it hit a raw nerve at the time as I thought I was trying my hardest to project my voice.

I scanned through the comments from the conference summary to see what was written about me and staring me in the face was the comment, “Yvonne’s talk was interesting, but her presenting was not as engaging as, for example, the second keynote speaker”. That did not feel good. I got that sinking feeling, being such a sensitive soul. I read on fearing the worst. Someone else had written, “the second keynote speaker was too self-centric and showed too many pictures of himself.” I was the first keynote. Phew!

Further down the evaluation was a section on the catering. People are very picky when it comes to what they eat and drink, it seems, “Almost all tea at coffee breaks was flavored — not tea!” This was counteracted by a comment written by one seemingly happy camper, “As a vegetarian, I am used to going hungry at conferences, either because meals are lost or have no protein. The veg meals here were FANTASTIC.”

Right at the end there was a section for attendees to “describe the best aspects of the conference.” And there in the middle of some praise about the conference organization, venue, and warm atmosphere, someone had written, “The first keynote was really, really excellent in it’s inspirational creativity.” I am not sure it undid the damage made by the first comment as negativity always seems to make more of a mark than positivity, staying longer with you. But that person’s praise certainly helped restore my self-esteem.

I have always been in two minds about the value of this kind of customer/student/attendee feedback because of the way it can sting. Reading the negative reviews on Trip Advisor may be entertaining and informative to the traveller but it can damage someone’s business if it is over the top or simply not fair. Someone may bear a grudge, be picky or have an axe to grind and being invited to write an online review about their recent experience gives them the license to do so – especially if they can remain anonymous.

But it is not just conferences, courses or travel sites that ask for feedback, it seems to have become the default request for an increasing number of our experiences – be it a trip to the dentist, doctor or candlestick maker. Governments, policy makers and councils are all eager to find out more about what we are thinking and feeling. There are numerous online sites asking people to voice their opinions about any number of topics, from internet security to what to do about fly tipping in the countryside. Trouble is it is usually only a minority who sign up to take part in these online forums. Most people are too busy, can’t see the point of taking part or are simply not interested. Others are suspicious of where our personal data ends up. When we see someone with a clipboard or tablet computer in the street coming towards us we look down and steer away from them. We’ve all been asked at some point or other to help out with market research or public opinion. Standing there in the street giving your age, gender, and views about a topic with a stranger is not pleasant and can be socially awkward. Is it any wonder most people shy away from voicing their opinons?
voxbox2Welcome to VoxBox – our latest creation that is “a playful machine that wants your opinions.” Instead of ticking boxes or typing comments online or on paper an assortment of colourful sliders, buttons, and switches are presented for people to turn, dial and slide their answers to. At the end of completing the questions an old fashioned phone rings and asks you an open-ended question. After completing a set of questions the box lights up and a ball drops down a chute to show completion rate. How different is that? On the back are real time visualisations updating the data collected, for example, showing the percentage of people who are enjoying and feel part of the event. We designed it to be deliberately brightly coloured and attractive.
We trialed it for the first time the other week at the Tour de France fan park in Green Park while the cyclists were peddling from Cambridge to London. Many people dropped by to take a look at VoxBox. Over 120 people took part and gave their opinions about the event, including groups of friends, families, couples and individuals. Some even queued for the experience. It was a joy to see them taking it seriously, reading the questions our aloud, talking to one another about the questions and lifting their young kids to voice their opinions. Yesterday I got an email from a colleague who works at the BBC who remarked how it reminded him of, “a mix of Willy Wonka, the controls of the Tardis and those ornate fairground automata. You certainly pulled off the irresistible affordance of ‘come and have a go’. Maybe we should start puting VoxBoxes in conferences…

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