I’m lucky to work with arts organisations full of brilliant people, telling wonderful stories who are constantly finding creative ways to meet artistic challenges and share their work and passion with as many people as possible. Combining the strengths of Wales Millennium Centre and National Theatre Wales, the creative and production teams behind Roald Dahl’s City of the Unexpected, which took over Cardiff city centre for two days this September, are all of these things.

Bringing together a small group of professionals and over 1,000 volunteer participants they produced an extraordinary (and I don’t use that word often or lightly) event that celebrated not just Roald Dahl but the city of Cardiff and its people.

You can get a flavour of the event with 15 ‘truly magical moments’ in pictures and video here or just search #unexpectedcity or #unexpectedpicnic on Twitter.

The Audience Agency were engaged to conduct the evaluation of the project and our challenge was clear – how could we make the evaluation as creative as the project itself?

Evaluation needs to be robust. It needs to be thorough. It doesn’t need to be boring. As measuring the impact of what we do becomes increasingly important, how can we make this less painful for our audiences who are constantly bombarded with surveys and requests to participate in focus groups? How can we be less needy?

I was reminded of this recently by the customer and organisational behaviour consultant Ron Evans who referred to a recent article in The Guardian by Anne Karpf: “I’m fed up of being asked for feedback – when did companies get so needy”. Anne recounts the endless requests for feedback from supermarkets to online stores, service providers to theatres. It’s worth a read and I share her pain – I’m guessing most of our audiences share it too.

My colleague Helen Mark, Research Manager in our Manchester office, rose to the challenge and devised an ‘in world’ evaluation process for participants with each element of the online survey and focus groups reflecting the spirit and tone of Dahl’s work and drawing on various elements of the event itself.

The focus groups took the form of a picnic – we shied away from too many revolting recipes though – and we dressed the room with props including child catcher nets, costumes, ‘Save Our Peach’ signs, hula-hoops and even a giant alligator’s paw. Helen donned a ‘Ministry of the Predictable’ jacket to facilitate the session and kept ‘in world’ with techniques adapted to use dream jars and bunting to explore the serious business of evaluating the experience, skills development and knowledge, place making and engagement impacts.

Robust – yes. Boring – definitely not.

Carol Jones Head of Consultancy, Wales | Pennaeth Ymgynghoriaeth, Cymru