Recently Filed in Data Handling

Negative feedback is hard to deal with. Some remarks strike a tender spot, and we hear the criticism so loudly it drowns out more moderate—or even positive—responses. Other remarks contradict our reality, so we build bulwarks, dismissing comments as vindictive, erroneous, or an outlier.

So no matter how unpleasant the message, it's important to remember that all feedback is just information. What matters is how we evaluate it and what we do next.

As great as the Web is for surveys, there are times paper is a better fit (and phones and in-person too of course). When paper is what you need, people often look to scanning as a "no data entry" solution. While you can get close with some surveys, as with all technology there's fine print.

These days, most of us do more in Excel than the VisiCalc creators would have dreamed. Following are a few of my favorite tricks for working with data in Excel (the raw side, not the chart side). This article includes:

Comma Separated Values (AKA comma-delimited ASCII) are one of the most common formats used to exchange information. This is because they're compatible with applications on just about any operating system—going back to DOS days. On many computers, a .CSV file will be automatically associated with Microsoft Excel, and when you double-click on the file it opens using the automatic settings.

This is great—unless you have certain types of data such as East coast Zip codes.

"Piping" at its most generic refers to moving information in, out, and around a survey. This makes it a very useful technology for any dynamic survey (Web, telephone, kiosk), potentially enriching the respondent experience or increasing data quality.

It's also one of the many survey terms that can mean different things to different people, so before you assume your survey tool does what you want, make sure you're using the same definitions as your vendor. This article covers four main approaches to piping:

In a recent workshop, a participant asked how to deal with his Zip code data. Every time he did a survey, he was manually grouping the codes into regions for analysis. If you're in a similar situation, here's a better approach.

First, you need to be able to merge two pieces of data: your survey responses and the Zip code information. This means you'll need to add some extra fields to your questionnaire to handle the city/state/CBSA information. In a Web form, you can use hidden fields to stash the information. On a paper form you can add them to your survey software or database after you print the questionnaire.

"What do you mean I have to clean the data? I used the Web so I wouldn't have to do any data entry."

While Web and scannable surveys will minimize data entry costs, some degree of data cleaning is required for all projects. Data cleaning has two elements: checking that the forms submitted are of good quality, and coding typed/written responses so they can be analyzed most effectively.

As with all aspects of a survey, you may need to make some trade-offs on your projects. I recently spoke to someone who was analyzing 20,000 responses per week on one survey, so optimizing all the comments she received wasn't feasible. However, if you have a few hundred responses to a one-time or quarterly study, it will probably make sense to invest a bit more on a per-form basis. Likewise with high stakes surveys, such as employee feedback, you'll want to make sure you get the most from the data.

Need a Hand?

A little help can add a lot of polish—or just save hours and headaches:

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Thanks again for the excellent training sessions. You were able to keep it interesting and worth every penny. You have such a thorough understanding of the software. ~~sigh~~ to be that wise!

Susan L. Despot
California University of Pennsylvania