You know they’re there. That stack of completed comments — the 3×5 cards, short surveys, and exhibition comment books — sitting in your file cabinet. Yeah, ok, there’s a little guilt, too.

What do you do now?

1)    Organize the responses

Open a blank Excel worksheet. Give each question its own vertical column. Enter every response to that question in the horizontal rows below. Click Organizing Data for an example.

If you want to save time and avoid human error (and if you have a few extra dollars in your budget), consider using online survey software (such as Survey Monkey or Survey Gizmo) rather than Excel. To use this shortcut:

  • Create a survey with the questions and question type.
  • Email the survey link to yourself.
  • Click on the survey link.
  • Type in the responses from the first comment card.
  • Return to the original link, then repeat.

Group open-ended responses into categories. (This is also known as coding.) Category names are up to you. I’ve used the following categories for many different projects:

  • Infrastructure – Comments about the museum facilities (such as restrooms, cafe or parking).
  • Format – Comments about the experience (e.g., “The interactives were broken.”)
  • Superlatives – Non-specific responses to the experience. (e.g., “This was cool.”)
  • Content – Detailed responses to the experience. (e.g., “I’ve never seen a black swan before.”)

2)    Summarize the responses  

Don’t fall down the statistical rabbit hole. You only need to calculate the percentage of responses or the average score for every question. Survey software can do this for you. (Excel requires a bit more work. Click Summarizing Data for an example.)

3)    Identify patterns among responses

Look at the summaries. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do people, in general, seem to be saying about each question?
  • Does there seem to be a pattern – either positive or negative — for each question?
  • Did I expect to find a pattern that isn’t there?
  • Is there an unexpected pattern?

4)    Use those patterns

Pattern 1 – “Overall, people enjoyed the lecture content, but they reacted negatively to the speaker.” This tells you that the speaker may need to learn how to engage audiences.

Pattern 2 – “Although a client designed a program for older children, responses indicate that participants were considerably younger.” This tells you that you should either adapt the program to engage young children, or develop a separate program on the same topic for young children.

Patterns answer the question: “What does it all mean?” Figuring out what it all means is the most challenging, yet most interesting aspect of the process. If emerging patterns can’t help you find answers, stop asking the question. You have limited space, and visitors have limited patience. Ask questions that will make your work and their experience worthwhile.

What are those questions? Please stay tuned….


Caren S. Oberg is principal and owner of Oberg Research, LLC. She opened Oberg Research in 2005 after her family, teachers, and employers told her she asks far too many questions. Thankfully, clients seem to welcome the trait. Find out more about her work at