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Self Tests: Useful or useless?

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It is amazing how people succumb to fads and fashion. In the sixties it was short hair and even shorter skirts. The seventies played host to flares and perms. And so it is with award programs. Whether it is the infamous status page or the inclusion of resource pages filled with rehashed advice, each passing year brings some new 'must have' for award programs. One such fad is the self test. Perhaps the use of the word 'fad' is inappropriate here since self tests seem to have a somewhat enduring quality. But how useful is this device. The tools that have staying power are the ones that have purpose and are likely to be used. Can the self test really be placed into this category? A closer examination may provide the answer.

What is it for?

The self test is often comprised of a series of questions, designed to allow the potential applicant to ensure they meet the requisite requirements to gain an award. It's inclusion often presupposes that the applicant has read the main criteria for the award program and it acts as a reinforcement - or sometimes a simple clarification - of that criteria. It is in effect - as the name implies - a test that the award applicant may ( or may not ) decide to take before he commits himself finally, and irrevocably to depressing the submit button on an application form. It is an optional extra, a service provided by the award giver to the applicant. There are often four motives expounded for the inclusion of the self test and we will examine each of these motives and provide some analysis

1: A desire to assist award applicants

One of the reasons for the inclusion of a self test is a genuine desire on the part of award givers to ensure that applicants have the best possible chance of winning an award. We have all seen the alert messages that arise when using modern software. We press a button to submit information or delete information and we are asked " Are you sure you want to perform this function? " The self test page could be said to perform just such a function. It asks the question " Are you sure that your site complies sufficiently to submit it for consideration." It is a failsafe mechanism for the award applicant who may have genuinely missed something when reading the criteria.

2: A desire to prevent time wasters

Another reason for the inclusion of a self test page is the desire on the part of the award giver to prevent those group of individuals that could be generically catergorised as "time wasters" - the individuals who are prepared to simply complete the application form without reference to the criteria of that program. Many, if not all award programs, will have had to contend with such submissions. Often the sheer inappropriateness of the submission is not realised until the evaluator has peered through the dim corridors of the applicant's site, by which time they have already wasted precious time. The inclusion of a self test which makes it clear that 'you will not receive an award if...." can be viewed at a time saving mechanism.

I would contend that using the self test for this purpose is only appropriate where the award manager has first looked at his criteria to determine if there is an obvious reason for applicants failing to read it. Is the criteria cumbersome, too unwieldy, too complicated to understand, or as boring as hell. An award program's criteria forms the heart of that program. If rectifiable faults can be identified either in the criteria or in the method of presentation, then reliance on a self test becomes almost redundant.

It should be added that assuming that your criteria cannot be improved upon in terms of presentation and contents, then it can be assumed that applicants fail to read the criteria because they are essentially lazy. It is doubtful therefore that they will take the time to read the self test questions.

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3: A desire to improve an award rating

The inclusion of a self test may be seen as a way to impress award organisations and thus improve the possible ratings that may be attained. In determining the rating of an award program, awards organisation will use set criteria. However, within that criteria there is often a degree of flexibility. The award organisation may not ask for a self test to be present but may for example stress the importance of usability or interactivity. The inclusion of self test pages may, in the mind of the award manager, be an outward sign that they are willing to go the extra mile for their applicants. On such things may ratings hang, at least in the minds of the award managers.

4: A method of ensuring the criteria is read.

Having acknowledged that many people do not read the criteria, the self test may perform the function of shortened criteria. Thus self tests are directed at those applicants who are unlikely to read the weightier information but who may be enticed by a few clipped phrases. Often self test pages can be seen with short statements reiterating the criteria but with points included at the end, indicating the value of adhering to that 'criterion'. I would suggest that this is a bastardisation of the self test's true function. It no longer becomes an optional extra but instead attains the characteristics of a key component within the program, and in many ways assumes greater importance than the main criteria. However, I suspect many people would state that anything that encourages applicants to read criteria, no matter the form or method of presentation of that criteria, could only be a good thing.

What should a self test look like?

And so, having looked at possible reasons for including a self test, what should such a beast look like?

Reflecting the criteria.

First of all there are no hard and fast rules for self tests. They will come in all shapes and sizes. However if the self test is to serve a useful function, it must reflect the criteria. A self test which asks different questions of the applicant than the main criteria is confusing in the extreme. This is an important issue to remember, especially as criteria is updated.

Correct Positioning

The position of the self test is important. If the award manager seeks to encourage applicants to use the self test, then tucking it away in some obscure recess of the award program is not going to achieve the desired result. There should be clear and unambiguous signposts within the program. The wording of those signposts also becomes important. Simply stating that there is a self test available if the applicant wants to use it, is hardly a persuasive argument for it's use. However, making it clear that the self test can improve the applicant's chances would concentrate the mind a little.

Also a self test positioned after the submit page would not encourage it's use. The importance of this page to the award manager - and therefore to potential applicants - can often be assumed by its position. After all, if it was so important or useful, would it not have been included before the submit page?

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The self test should not be as wieldy as the main criteria. Short cropped statements are sufficient, especially where this is merely to be used as a reinforcement of the main criteria. After all, if an applicant has read the criteria he is not going to thank you for making him go through it all again in as much detail. And if an applicant has not read the criteria he is hardly likely to visit a self test that is as detailed as the pages he could not be bothered to read.

A self test contained within a form with checkboxes enables the applicant to work systematically through the self test and to chart his progress.


Ensure that the self test process is explained. It is important to explain the function of the self test to the applicants. Users of self tests should never be left believing that this in some way is a guarantee of an award. It is for the award manager to make this clear. Clarity should extend to a clear understanding in the mind of the award manager as to why the self test is being included in the first place. Only then can it be managed effectively.


So self tests. Useful or Useless? In the final analysis, the answer to that question depends on whether they enhance an award program's effectiveness, and meet the award manager's needs or just add to already existing weighty pages. The answer will be different for each program. As for myself...the jury is still out.

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