OPINION5 December 2014

Re-positioning the survey

Opinion

The reputation of market research in the public domain is sketchy at best. When I describe the whats, hows and whys to reassert my excellent career choice I’m met with zero light bulb moment reactions.

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While ripples from within the industry continue to revolutionise the practice and sex it up with the likes of neuroscience, behavioural data and mobile research, a solid, giant brick wall thwarts these efforts. No, not just the contestants of The Apprentice and their laughable attempts at market research, but the very life-blood of quantitative research: the survey.

The survey can be viewed as the face of our profession. It is what we expose the general public to when we ask for their thoughts. Yet unlike the way we brand our websites to potential clients or the way advertisers aim to engage and encourage action, the survey, on the whole, fails to excite or capture the imagination in any shape or form.

Information presented in a dull way is a big visual turn-off. Yet this is supposed to act as a core component in end client decision-making. This is our product and this is what our clients, the big brands, are presenting to their target customers. As a result, the survey acting as the brand marker of market research is being publicised and represented as boring and therefore being placed in the same cognitive desirable space as a household chore or life admin. Can you therefore blame market research for having the reputation it does?

What hurts even more is when you think about the wider picture: the research industry is churning out these dull, lifeless surveys while the rest of the commercial world is making noises with clever, mentally stimulating visuals that make you smile. It’s quite embarrassing.

We talk about impacting clients’ business and driving innovation, yet our basic tool for eliciting feedback has hardly moved on from looking like a paper questionnaire transposed onto a digital screen. If we really are that innovative, then why do we make the desire to complete our surveys so difficult? These criticisms merely cover the survey’s aesthetic flaws. When we look at the wider detrimental effects of the impact of poor survey design we find response bias and consumer boredom. When we expose individuals to lengthy questionnaires, uninspiring question formats and repetitive, redundant questioning we’re providing a long list of reasons for inducing rapid random clicks, which ultimately generates poor quality data.

Surveys need to be re-positioned and given more thought than they are currently given. They are not a means to an end but should be mentally stimulating, empowering and rewarding for an individual to complete. A few basics to consider:

  • Visualisation: infographics can now be found in all disciplines and are a prime example of why information, presented in an easy to digest, attractive way is favourable. Just as the creative industry aims to distract and disrupt in order to attract attention, the survey needs to learn from these lessons and begin to become more imaginative.
  • Interactive questions: survey interactivity heightens respondent engagement and concentration on the subject matter. Drag and drop questions or slider questions that replace the rapid clicking mechanism have been proven to get participants thinking about their answers more carefully. Combining these with visuals boosts effort levels further.
  • Question wording: surveys that come into my inbox these days too often have a level of formality inherited from the early days of market research conducted by telephone. This lineage is apparent through the often overcomplicated, unnecessarily wordy and uninventive text. One key lesson that has been imparted to me during my career: ‘think like a copy writer.’ At the very least, consider the adoption of natural, everyday occuring language.
  • Survey length: really isolate the necessity of every question attribute in your survey. At all costs, reduce the boredom effect, or else your research questions run the risk of being merely background noise in an attempt to reach finish.
  • Above all, think like a participant. They are people just like you and I. If you are puzzled and switching off, chances are they are too. Do participants feel they are contributing to something important with what you’re going to present them?

Inevitably looking at the above list we think time, effort and money. But how much do we value data quality for our research projects and what proportion of scripting makes up the total cost of a study? Is this representative? Are you okay with this?

The survey is our vehicle to the outside world. Doing the bare minimum, and thanking people for their opinions only at the end of a gruelling 20-minute survey not only hurts the reputation of research but threatens the future of online research.

Lucy Hoang is senior research executive at Northstar Research Partners.

7 Comments

7 years ago

Hear hear! I agree whole heartily with Lucy's views. Sometimes, I feel researchers like to keep their questionnaires bland and "plain vanilla" in an effort to show independence and consistency. Other times its just being plain lazy and using the same format time after time. My company, Surveylab, specializes in Customer Loyalty and Employee Engagement that are specifically targeted at customers or employees of a client. We use a graphic designer as part of our programming process to ensure the survey looks attractive, reflects clients'branding guidelines and is easy to complete. I am sure this has an impact on response rates as well as the accuracy of the findings.

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7 years ago

Keep on talking Lucy. More people need to hear this. And evenly more importantly, more people need to PRACTICE this. Templates drastically shorten the time required to write surveys but templates are our downfall. Ditch the templates, ditch the norms, and write a survey as if the people answering them were human beings not robots. This rant has been brought to you by the letter 8 and the number purple..

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7 years ago

Hear hear! I agree whole heartily with Lucy's views. Sometimes, I feel researchers like to keep their questionnaires bland and "plain vanilla" in an effort to show independence and consistency. Other times its just being plain lazy and using the same format time after time. My company, Surveylab, specializes in Customer Loyalty and Employee Engagement that are specifically targeted at customers or employees of a client. We use a graphic designer as part of our programming process to ensure the survey looks attractive, reflects clients'branding guidelines and is easy to complete. I am sure this has an impact on response rates as well as the accuracy of the findings.

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7 years ago

We agree with you 100% Lucy. When we conducted a shopping behaviour study we dropped the word "survey" because of the amount of grimacing we faced, Terms such as "research", "stud" or "project" would seem to be more engaging.

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7 years ago

This will keep on as long as research houses treat research projects as something they need to complete and go to another one, where projects are churned like in a conveyor belt. Less importance is given in looking at the consequences of what we do. Thinking culture needs to be embedded to researchers if we want to move on.

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7 years ago

Lucy, It has become the norm for surveys to be "pumped out" with little thought or planning attached to them. The data collection process is indeed somewhat bland and the relationships that are being examined are seldom developed by actions driven from the findings and outcomes of the research. Customers and Employees expect and demand more in today's economy and if the research "processes" feel just like that to them, then they will move away from contributing. The art and craft of engaging feedback management is something very close to my heart and that of my business QuestBack. Surveytainment and gamification in the data collection process, together with a means of engaging into a relevant and appropriate dialogue based upon what the respondent has shared, goes a long way to reversing the increasing trend of survey fatigue. The use of the right technology that extends into relationship development with your audience and respondents will help you and your clients know faster and in turn grow faster. That technology should enable solicited, spontaneous unsolicited feedback to take place in the way that the respondent wishes to contribute. The mixture of the structured data collection and that of the less structured means to get to the same result is both refreshing and engaging for the respondent. It is on their terms or at least in a way that engages them continuously. Also, asking once a year is never enough as still tends to be the case for annual customer and employee satisfaction, experience and engagement surveys. if you put your own personal relationships to the test by that means, you will likely find there is no one to ask by the time the next year comes around! Going further, put that analogy into business or organizational feedback scenarios and you will begin to sense why the response rates are falling and will continue to do so. The loss of talented employees and customers is the net result. Moreover, the attempts by organizations to close the loop and follow up on the feedback that is received is flawed at best and non existent at worst. Your customers, employees and other stakeholders need to know that their feedback has been received, listened to, heard and more importantly has some action taken to meet and hopefully exceed the needs and expectations they have of the organization asking the questions. To close, it is becoming common place that incentives are being used as the drivers for getting feedback which is a smart practice and not to be ignored. However, it is likely of more value to your customer and employees to be part of a relationship, where the feedback they provide becomes the basis for dialogue and in turn the vehicle to strengthen and develop their relationship with the organization. Don't just reward them engage them as part of what should be a meaningful and continuous discussion and communication channel. The online survey is still very much alive and kicking as a means of turning data into knowledge, knowledge into insight and insight into action. It simply needs to be thought through more, planned better and designed to be engaging and to stimulate and drive dialogues. Capture the responses and the dialogues in one place and you will see a significant reversal in the current experience of "black hole" surveys.

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7 years ago

Lucy, the issues you raise are quite real but I've been hearing about this for decades and finally, I am seeing the MR Community begin to act. We at I & S have taken up the cause as well. Let me add in a few suggestive keywords to help stimulate some innovation for all here: 1. storytelling. Just like we've adopted and incorporated storytelling methods in our final reporting, we've also done something similar for survey design. Secondly, think social gaming. Some gaming techniques really do help to facilitate respondent survey taking and stimulate some highly lucid, creative open-ended responses. Overall, however, I've got one key issue to add to this, one which may be difficult for the MR Community to overcome: namely, how do we ever manage to execute more streamlined, respondent friendly surveys needed to implement full-scale segmentation studies where the data collection is long winded and complex by necessity? I'd love to hear your ideas about that. In some situations, an alternative approach to the traditional survey is to return to data already collected, i.e., D-base Mining. We've been doing something special for several of our clients over the past 3 years, something that obviates the need for conducting new survey research if prior research data can address the current frame of objectives and issues. I'd love to get your reactions to using D-Base Mining as a tool to replace new survey research for those scenarios in which previous data can address important questions previously unaddressed by already conducted surveys. All too often, the vendor has a strictly laid out plan of attack for providing the final analysis and report. However, compilation of all previous segmentation, tracking and concept test studies actually can provide the answers you may be seeking how, thus reducing the need to conduct new studies. This is an obvious cost effective option, one that our clients have really begun to appreciate. I welcome your comments: http://www.wacsurvey.com/downloads/RationaleforMarketSimulation.pdf http://www.wacsurvey.com/downloads/wacsismarketmodelsimulation.websiteversion.pdf

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