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~Thursday~ Yesterday, I participated in the first of three sessions of a Sour Cream Taste Test that I'm a part of. Of course I'll be paid to give my opinion, and the reward schedule is enumerated below. I love how, in the first week, "healthy snacks, too" was added, pretty much, as an afterthought.

  • Participants in week 1 will receive a food treat for their participation. We have whole candy bars, bags (presumably "whole" as well) of chips, drinks, and healthy snacks too!

  • When you participate in a second week you will receive a $20 Target card.

  • Participation in a third week will be compensated with a $15 Target card. You can only participate in three tests and there must be a two week wait in between tests you participate in.


So, there were 12 samples to taste, with two minutes between each sample, making the total commitment about 30 minutes.

There were about ten cubicles in which the participants sat, each with a lazy Susan in a window through which the samples were passed:


To your left was a computer screen where the instructions appeared. The first screen said:

You will now evaluate sample number 989. Please taste the sample and answer the following questions.

There were three questions about each sample and the first one asked to rate its creaminess:


The next question was about how you liked it overall:


I don't have a picture of the third question, but it was again about its creaminess, and the first time I read it, I had to re-read it trying to figure out how it differed from the first question about creaminess (which I could no longer see). This one was to the effect of: "How do you like the creaminess of this sample?" and the responses were a range from something like, "Not creamy enough" to "Too creamy."

Following that third—and final—question, this screen would appear, but before you go imagining that you had to use water and crackers to cleanse your "straw mattress," "your portable platform on which goods can be moved, stacked, and stored, especially with the aid of a forklift," or "the diminutive of the pale, a narrow vertical strip, usually borne in groups of two or three," that word pallet should be palate.

You will now have a 2-minute rest before your next sample. Please drink water and eat a cracker to cleanse your pallet.

And finally, this screen came up in order to indicate your readiness for the next sample:

You have 30 seconds left before your next sample. Please open the turn table now so your server can go prepare it for you.




I'm going to talk about two things now with regards to this experience:

  1. My observations about this from a "usability test" perspective, about which I'm somewhat educated, mostly from a grad school course I took on how to create and perform usability tests (see my Microwave Usability Report and my Google Website Usability Report), and then a subsequent freelance job I did creating and performing a usability test for an NC State website.

  2. My observations about myself and my relationship to sour cream.


The usability test observations


  • There was only one spoon to use for all twelve samples. I'm not so sure that that was for the best, as you weren't encouraged to wipe the spoon after each sample or anything.

  • We were only given three crackers and the way the instructions were written, it made it sound like you should eat one cracker after each sample to clear that "pallet" of yours. (No, I can't let that go.)

  • Same with the water, and when I ran out of both (at one time) and asked for more of each, I only got two more crackers (and no more water).

  • Although they gave you a countdown on the screen for your two-minute break, an audio warning at the end of that would have been beneficial, as they said you could use your phone (only on silenced mode) to pass the time in between, and a couple of times, I got lost in my phone and by the time I looked up the time had way expired.

  • One time, the screen asked me to rate sample number x, but the server gave me sample number y. I noticed it and got the correct sample. With the open cubicle situation, I heard one other person do this as well. This made me wonder about how often it might be happening, about the people who don't pay attention to detail and wouldn't notice if it did, and then about the overall margin of error that might be associated with the results of this study.

  • For the first sample, I rated its creaminess at a 9 (out of 10) with no real criteria to use for creaminess. The third and fourth samples were so creamy as to be almost "runny," and I put them at a 10. Had I known at the beginning that they could get that creamy, I would probably have rated that first one more like 6 or 7 instead of 9. Again, this makes me wonder about the validity of the final numbers.

  • I started off the test with one "server," but by the end there had been three in total. First of all, "server" (their word) is really a misnomer. These were people you could see when the lazy Susan swung around and they were students in the food science department wearing lab coats and squirting sour cream out of what looked like frosting bags into little cups with numbers on them. But I digress... My first two servers were women and the last one, who served me the last four or five samples, was a guy who basically "flung" the sample onto the lazy Susan. He's also the one who only gave me two crackers and no water when I asked for more of each.

  • I thought both: the one, "regular" sized, plastic spoon and the sample size of sour cream were way too big. It seemed really wasteful in terms of the sample size, as nobody would ever eat all of a sample that big, or by the end they would have probably eaten a pint of sour cream. With regards to the spoon, I think they should have used, and given you 12 of, those small plastic spoons like they have for tasting at ice cream places, and one-fourth of the amount of sour cream they gave you each time. Of course, they never gave you any recommendation of how much to eat to get a "good taste" of it, either.

Me and sour cream


  • It was my sense that the sour cream samples got more and more sour as they went on, but I'm not sure that's what it was about them that made me like them less and less as each sample arrived, and for the last two I was audibly gasping with a noise that indicated I didn't like the taste of it.

  • I don't know the nomenclature or have the knowledge domain to describe the difference in taste that I was experiencing. That's why I said I had the "sense" that they were getting more and more sour as they went along, but I don't know for sure that that's what I didn't like about them.

  • I found that I pretty much don't care how creamy sour cream is, as I answered the question, "I think the creaminess of this sample is...," with the same answer for every sample. Whether it was one that could hold a shape or one that would run down the side of a plate or the food it was on, I answered, "Just about right."


In conclusion, I know you are wondering what reward I decided on for for this week's participation, so here's what I chose to put in my pallet [sic] at some future date:

Raisin Bran Crunch cereal in a one-serving container

 
 
Go to Part II (of III) of the Taste Test.
 

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
dan4behr
Mar. 2nd, 2012 03:13 pm (UTC)
I used to work for a food service management company.

We franchised Hardee's and Quincy's (now defunct) restaurants. One of the nice things about the training department was it's location - near the mailroom and the
*test kitchens!*
//yay!//

We have tests similar to what you describe using locals and many company employees. French fry vendor selection was always fun - and bad for your waistline. Sample burger patties? Yup.
How about soft serve concoctions? Check...

They also had yearly regional Champion Biscuit and Yeast roll bake-offs. Regional winners were brought to corporate HQ. They would practice before submitting a sample of their best for judging. As I recall, a batch of Quincy's Yeast rolls produced 144 rolls. I can't remember how many Hardees' biscuits were made.

Those that were 'practice' ended up in 3ft. high piles on breakroom tables. You took them home in green plastic bags and froze them by the dozen...

I suddenly want a Quincy's yeast roll, fresh and warm, with some butter and strawberry jam...
dailyafirmation
Mar. 2nd, 2012 03:52 pm (UTC)
Yummy, yummy, YUMMY!
I freakin' love some yeast rolls! :-) OMG, a 3ft-high pile of bread... <swoon>

I once participated in a French fry tasting focus group. They brought out several different kinds of fries. I remember one sample had some red seasoning on them, and the question was, "In what kind of restaurant would you expect to find fries like these?"

I'd love to do that for a living, but alas I'd have to get around by wheelbarrow. :-)

Thanks for sharing, Dan!

Edited at 2012-03-02 08:21 pm (UTC)
dancecub
Mar. 3rd, 2012 08:00 am (UTC)
I wonder whether the test was really about sour cream. It might have been about people's behaviors during the test.
dailyafirmation
Mar. 4th, 2012 02:36 am (UTC)
You're not the first person to suggest that....
...but if it was, it was an elaborate hoax. :-)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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