Public Nopinion

I'm not quite sure how she did it, but this year my wife managed to convince me to follow the latest weekly pandering to public opinion that is "The X Factor" - our annual TV search here in Britain for the next major singing and recording star. I did manage to miss most of the early heats; except for those entrants so excruciatingly awful that my wife saved the recording so she could convince me that there's a faint possibility I don't actually have the worst singing voice in the world. Though I suspect it's a close-run thing.

And I have to admit that some of the finalists do have solid performing capabilities. There's a couple of guys in the "over 25s" section that really look like they could actually make it as recording artists. Though, to really tell, you probably should watch (or rather, listen) with the screen turned off so you aren't distracted by the accompanying (and very talented) dancers, the audience madly waving banners, and the pyrotechnics and light shows that accompany every performance. I mean, it's supposed to be all about the voice.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. After one particularly controversial decision where a young lady with probably the purest and most versatile singing voice was voted off, the show's owner Simon Cowell said that "he trusts public opinion" and that he "wouldn't organize a show like this if he didn't". Unlike what seems to be the majority of the baying public out there, I actually agreed with his decision. If the show is supposed to be about finding the best artist based on the opinions of the "Great British Public", then they should be allowed to make the decisions.

What's worryingly clear, of course, is that the public don't actually vote based on the principles of the competition - they vote for their favorite. I suspect that the tall and attractive blonde lady gets a lot of votes from young men, and the teenage lad (who, to be honest, doesn't have the greatest voice) gets a lot of votes from teenage girls. Meanwhile my wife wanted the guy with the mad hairdo who looks a bit like Brian May from Queen (and is a very passable rock music singer) to win. Or maybe the one who wears funny hats.

But more than anything, you have to assume that a great many people vote - mainly out of spite - for the act that Simon Cowell (currently Britain's most hated person) has been trying to get voted off for the past many weeks. Rather like the last TV-based ballroom dancing contest where the lumbering overweight TV reporter actually had to resign from the competition because it was clear that he was the worst every week, but the public kept voting him in.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Who is best placed to choose the optimum outcome for any activity that involves choice? The principles of democracy suggest that allowing everyone to have their say, and choosing the most popular outcome, is the way to achieve not only popularity, but success as well. It's based on the assumption that everyone will make a logical choice based on their situation, and the resulting policy will therefore satisfy the largest number of people and achieve the optimum outcome. Though that doesn't appear to be the way that the People's Republic of Europe works, where the public gets no choice, but that's a whole other ballgame.

In our world of technology development generally, and particularly here in p&p, we rely on public opinion a great deal. We use advisory boards and public votes to figure out the future direction and features for our offerings, and to provide an overall guide for the optimum direction of our efforts. In theory, this gives us a solid view of the public opinion of our products, and ensures that we follow the path of improvement in line with need and desires.

But is this actually the case? If 6.5 million people watched "X Factor", but only a few thousand voted, is the result valid? Could it be that most people (like me) have an opinion on who should win, but have neither the professional ability to make a properly informed decision on their real talent, or who just can't be bothered picking up the phone? In a similar way, if only 35% of the population actually vote in a general election, is the result actually valid? Is it only the opinionated or those with an axe to grind who influence the final outcome?

Its worrying if this trend also applies to software development. When we run a poll, send out questionnaires, or consult an advisory group, are we actually getting the appropriate result? If the aim is to widen the user base for a product, is asking people who already use it (and, in many cases, are experts) what they want to see the best way to broaden the reach and improve general user satisfaction? No doubt there's been plenty of study in this area from polling organizations and others associated with statistical modelling, but it's hard to see how you adjust numbers to make up for the lack of input from a very large proportion of the population.

In particular, if you are trying to make a product or service more open to newcomers, and widen the user base to include a broader spectrum of capabilities, how do you get to the people who have never heard of your product? Is asking the existing expert user base, and perhaps those already interested in learning about it, the best way? And, if not, how else can you garner a wider range of non-biased opinion?

Mind you, I reckon the Geordie with the big teeth will win...

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