So I says to the survey

The SWON 2012 Teen Reading Challenge is up and running. Right now we have over 180 participants. Since Wednesday, they’ve reported having read a combined 16,000 pages already. Not a bad start.

We’re expecting to collect several thousand Reading Reports from Challenge participants, so we had to interview several survey applicants before choosing one. In past Challenges, SWON used a SWON-built MySQL database to collect information on the books people read. In terms of the Challenge, it collected everything it needed: book information (including number of pages) and the reader’s rating of the book as a bonus.

When I sat down in front of that data, there seemed to be an opportunity to collect information that would improve its usefulness for Readers’ Advisory users. Adding their opinions about the book could help others discover books they’d like to read. So I wrote a short-list of questions and got some feedback from Actual Readers’ Advisory Librarians. I’m no DBA, though. Modifying the current MySQL database is more than I know how to do, and a short timeline meant I needed to find a different solution.

So I looked at a couple different survey tools. The first was Survey Monkey. We have a Basic (read “free”) account there. That only allows for 100 responses. There lots of situations where that limitation would be fine, but the Reading Challenge isn’t one of them.

Next I looked at Google Docs. You can build your own survey there, which is linked to a spreadsheet that you can use or download to Excel. I built a quick survey there, including a question about genres. It seems like genre is the king of subjectivity. Put a couple CDs into your computer and watch with horror the genre names that come up. (Sure internets, I have 40 CDs that match “Alt. Country/Folk”) To be useful info, people need to be able to select multiple matching genres. So that’s what I built in my Google Docs survey.

That’s what broke my Google Docs survey. When I added some sample data, which selected multiple genres, Google put all that data in one cell. For example, let’s say that I chose to enter a book with the genres Historical, Mystery, and Science Fiction. Google’s spreadsheet would record that in one cell as “Historical, Mystery, Science Fiction” under the column heading “Genre.” If I want to create a formula that counts how many books matched the genre “Mystery,” I’m going to have to write some fancy scripts to discover Mystery in the middle of a text string. I’d rather not.

It’s much easier if the spreadsheet creates a column for each genre. You end up with a lot more columns, but who cares. A very simple formula will tell you how many books matched the genre “Mystery.” It’s also easy to find how many books matched “Mystery” and “Historical,” or “Mystery” but not “Science Fiction.” I didn’t quickly see how to set up Google’s spreadsheet this way, so I moved on.

We have a paid account with Constant Contact, which includes a survey builder. A quick test build there confirmed that selecting multiple genres was no problem–each genre is given its own column. I’m not a huge fan of Constant Contact’s WYSIWYG tools, and that counts for the surveys as well as their emails. Look at the HTML they generate to see what a mess it is.

The formatting for the survey was screwy too, with lots of blank paragraphs making for long pages of blank space. When I emailed their tech support about it, their fix was to edit the survey questions in IE or Firefox 3. Uh, okay. There’s evidently no HTML editor for surveys as there is for emails. In IE, I had to edit each question twice. The first edit removed some paragraph breaks and added others; the second edit finished the job. Yikes.

Constant Contact won’t let me update the questions once a survey has been published. This makes sense in some ways, but it means I can’t update the list of teams in the survey, which is too bad. It’s up and running, though, and I’ve exported data from it to make sure it works (and get that 16,000 pages number). Are there other survey tools you’ve used that are worth considering?


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