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Chapter 6: Opinion Polls

Opinion polls consist of questions with a set of options from which users can select their response. Once a user votes in a poll it's customary to show them current statistics about how the poll is going at that particular time. This chapter explains why polls are useful and important for different web sites. Then you will learn how to design and implement a simple and maintainable voting module for our TheBeerHouse site.

Problem

There are basically two reasons why polls are used on a web site: because the site managers may be interested in what their users like (perhaps so they can modify their advertising or product offerings, or maybe in a more general sense to understand their users better) and to help users feel like they have some input to a site and make them feel like they are part of a community of users. Good polls always contain targeted questions that can help the site's managers to know who their users are and what they want to find on their site. This information can be used to identify which parts of the site to improve or modify. Polls are valuable for e-commerce sites too because they can indicate which products are of interest and in higher demand. Armed with this information, e-commerce businesses can highlight those products, provide more detailed descriptions or case studies, or offer discounts to convince users to buy from their site. Another use for the information is to attract advertising revenue. If you look on a typical medium to large-size site, you will frequently see an "Advertise with Us" link or something similar. If you were to inquire about the possibility of advertising on a particular site, that site's advertising department would likely give you some demographics regarding the typical users of that site, such as age, the region or country they live in, common interests, and so on. This information is often gathered by direct or indirect polls. The more details you provide about your typical audience, the more chance you have of finding a sponsor to advertise on your site.

The other major benefit is user-to-user communication. Users generally like to know what their peers think about a product or a subject of interest to them. I must admit that I'm usually curious when I see a poll on a web site. Even if I don't have a very clear opinion about the question being asked, I will often vote just so I can see the statistics of how the other users voted! This explains why polls are usually well accepted, and why users generally vote quite willingly. Another reason why users may desire to cast a vote is because they think their opinion may influence other users or the site managers. In addition, their votes really are important, as you've seen; and the results can definitely drive the future content of the site and perhaps even business decisions. For these reasons, you or your client may realize that you want the benefits of a poll feature, and thus you will implement some form of polling on the web site.

You should consider some design issues about web polls — namely, the problems that you must address to successfully run a poll system. First of all, as with the news and other content, the same poll shouldn't remain active for too long. If you left the same poll on the page for, say, two months, you might gather some more votes, but you would lose the interest of users who voted early. If you keep a poll up for just a couple of days, you may not achieve significant results because some of your users may not have visited your site within that time frame. The right duration depends mostly on the average number of visitors you have and how often they return to your site. As a rule-of-thumb, if you know that several thousands of users regularly come to visit the site each week, then that is a good duration for the active poll. Otherwise, if you have fewer visitors, you can leave the poll open for two or more weeks, but probably not longer than a month.

Note 

In case you're wondering how to get the information you need to make this decision, there are several services that enable you to easily retrieve statistics for your site, such as the frequency and number of visitors, and much more. Some of these services are commercial, but you can also find some good free ones. If you have a hosted web site through a hosting company, you probably have access to some statistics through your hosting company's control panel (these gather information by analyzing the IIS log files). Of course, you could implement your own hit counter by yourself — it would be pretty easy to track visitors and generate some basic statistics, but if you wanted to reproduce all the advanced features offered by specialized services it would be quite a lot of work, and it may be cheaper in the long run to subscribe to a professional service.

When you change the active poll, a new question arises: What do you do with the old questions and their results? Should you throw them away? Certainly not! They might be very interesting for new users who didn't take part in the vote, and the information will probably remain valid for some time, so you should keep them available for viewing. Old polls can even be considered as part of the useful content of your site, and you should probably build an archive of past polls. If you allow a user to vote as many times as they want to, you'll end up with incorrect results. The overall results will be biased towards that user's personal opinion. Having false results is just as useless as having no results at all, because you can't base any serious decisions on them. Therefore, you want to prevent users from voting more than once for any given question. There are occasions when you might want to allow the user to vote several times, though. For example, during your own development and testing stage, you may need to post many votes to determine whether the voting module is working correctly. The administrator could just manually add some votes by entering them directly into the SQL table, or by directly calling the appropriate stored procedure, but that would not tell you if the polling front end is working right. If you enter votes using the polling user interface that you'll build in this chapter, it's more convenient and it thoroughly tests the module. There are reasons for wanting to allow multiple votes after deployment, too. Imagine that you are running a competition to select the best resource on any selected topic. The resources might be updated frequently, and if the poll lasts a month, then users may change their mind in the meantime, after voting. You may then decide to allow multiple votes, but no more than once per week (but you probably won't want to go to the trouble of letting a user eliminate their earlier vote).

Note 

This discussion talks about polls that only allow a single option to be selected (poll boxes with a series of radio buttons). However, another type of poll box enables users to vote for multiple options in a single step (the options are listed with checkboxes, and users can select more than one). This might be useful if you wanted to ask a question like "What do you usually eat at pubs?" and you wanted to allow multiple answers through multiple separate checkboxes. However, this type of poll is quite rare, and you could probably reword the question to ask what food they most like to eat at pubs if you only want to allow one answer. The design of a multiple-answer poll would needlessly complicate this module, so our example here won't use that kind of functionality.

To summarize what we've discussed here: You want to implement a poll facility on the site to gauge the opinions of your users and to generate a sense of community. You don't want users to lose interest by seeing the same poll for a long time, but you do want a meaningful number of users to vote, so you'll add new questions and change the current poll often. You also want to allow users to see old polls because that helps to add useful content to your page, but they won't be allowed to vote in the old polls. Finally, you want to be able to easily add the poll to any page, and you want the results to be as unbiased and accurate as possible. The next section describes the design in more detail, and considers how to meet these challenges.


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