China Insights

When it comes to survey design, don't take people's attention for granted

Alexander Wheatley

Innovation Researcher

Brands 14.05.2018 / 18:00


Lightspeed shows how to design surveys people actually want to take – so you can believe the responses.

Making surveys more fun can improve participation and produce results that are more likely to be trustworthy, and useful. If we want people to read, never mind answer, our survey questions, we need to learn from industries who get your attention for a living. Time to think less like a researcher and more like an advertiser, story-teller or game designer.

Think like an advertiser

Where researchers tend to focus upon details and explanation, advertisers focus on condensing and resonating. They succeed when they catch your eye and quickly deliver their message in a way you can relate to. Imagery is used as a tool of engagement and vast effort is applied in writing compelling copy.

If a survey were an advert, however, it would often be a very bad one: one that focuses purely on what the questioner wants, and paying no attention to whether you want to consume its message.

The introduction is the point at which you must convince someone that what you will be asking is worth them answering. So why start with a long unappealing list of options, when you could instead intrigue them with an ‘advert’ for the content within?

When it comes to the content itself, the two key downfalls of surveys are the use of too many words and speaking in researcher language. Only say what you need to, and speak in a language respondents can understand. From there you can get more creative. Copywriting techniques borrowed from advertisers – such as adding emotion, putting people in a scene and making questions relatable – can help improve survey data.

Approach surveys like a story-teller

Survey designers (unlike advertisers) must hold people’s attention for a long time, so what can we learn from the creators of books and films, which hold people’s attention for hours on end? A good narrative.

This is the best way to take people on a journey: a clear beginning, middle and end turns a random set of questions into a clear story people want to follow.

One simple narrative trick is to use a story to answer a central question. Surveys might not have the luxury of dramatic plot lines, but they do have interesting questions at their very heart. Behind every survey is at least one research question that can be employed to fascinate respondents.

A questionnaire about shampoo, for example, can easily be centred on the question “What is the secret of a great shampoo?” With this narrative structure it becomes simple to ask questions about packaging, smell, features, product usage, branding etc., and with a central question pitched to the respondent they do not feel like a random collection of questions.

Such narratives can even be applied to content traditionally seen as quite dry. By centring the narrative on the question of “How would you invest £1 million in your business?” Lightspeed has had great success in taking a survey about funding sources for SMEs, and turning it from an unengaging repetitive task-based survey, to a highly engaging project that produced useful output.

Make the survey feel like a game

We survey designers not only have to involve people passively, but we have to encourage active participation and interaction. So what can be learned from game designers who encourage this type of interaction?

Turning a task from a burden into a game people enjoy is obviously no easy task. You want your content to encourage participation; however, you don’t want engagement to fit around content in a way that distracts people from the content. Go too far and you can not only bias answers but also encourage speeding and lack of concentration, as people skip through the dry content to get to the fun bits.

Therefore, the aim is to integrate the principles of what makes a task a game into the way you ask your questions. We have identified three main principles for doing this.

Make things voluntary: A game can’t be a forced exercise and by that principle there is an argument to say that an engaging survey should not be either. Our research has shown that making sections of surveys voluntary can actually result in more participation than if they are compulsory.

Create a challenge: Instead of simply asking people to list the brands they are aware of, by asking them to name five or by giving them a time constraint of one minute, we have seen the responses increase. The key to set a target slightly higher than most would reach voluntarily, so that it feels like a challenge.

Establish rewards: These do not need to be tangible rewards. Incentivising is a double edged sword, while it might encourage participation, it might also encourage participation purely for the reward in a way that is detrimental to engagement. Learning something new, solving a puzzle or being entertained – all these can be a reward for individuals taking a survey.

As well as developing tools for designing surveys, we are keen to change the mindset around how to ask questions. By thinking more about how to engage people, rather than just what we want to know, researchers will move away from treating panellists simply as units of information. We need to view our respondents as a network with a potential for problem solving, and a network of thought and data. Because the alternative of taking for granted their responses, and viewing them as an automated input, is unfortunately a sure fire way of ensuring poor data and weak insight.

Source: Lightspeed

Editor's notes

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