The Survey of the Future

Felix Rios, Market Research Technology Manager, Ugam,

We often like to envision a future of consumer data collection dominated by technologies that collect hyper contextual, passive data from all our interactions with websites and wearables. But as exciting as these new technologies are, it’s important to point out that there will always be a place for the good ol’ survey. It will always be a complementary technique to enrich all the other data that we generate and collect without even noticing.

That being said, the surveys we use now will inevitably have to change. We have to rethink the survey of the future, and to do this we have to see through the eyes of the participant of the future. The new generation of panelists is made up of digital natives. They learned to communicate their ideas in 140 characters and share their thoughts and opinions without being asked to do it. They grew up watching 15 second videos, and they text to communicate rather than talk.

Above all, the participants of the future have grown up with the concept of instant gratification deeply embeded in their DNA. There’s no doubt if we want our industry to remain alive, it is our responsibility to rethink the survey experience to cater to this new audience.

Many initiatives have come out of the recent acknowledgement by publishers that there is a direct link between load times and drop out rates for online content. Google is making some important efforts to improve the load time of mobile pages. They have launched a very interesting initiative called Google Accelerated Mobile Page. Facebook is doing something similar with their instant articles.

The Survey of Today
The current digital metaphor of a survey is based on the concept of “pages”. A question is presented, you click the answer and go to the next page. Maybe this was done on purpose, or maybe it was just the natural evolution of the more traditional and foundational pen-and-paper questionnaire, where interviewers had to select the answers and jump through pages in a clipboard.

When a website is loaded, there are many calls and references being made to multiple destinations/urls. In the case of a survey, this could be done 10 times or hundreds, depending how creative the researcher got when writing the questionnaire. When you have to load 20, 30, 50 pages during a survey session, something as simple as a network hiccup at any end could cause anything from slight delays loading the page to a “404 error”. The longer a page takes to laod, the more apt you are to lose a participant.

As it stands today, participants have to endure multiple clicks and loading pages just to get through a survey. This concept of a “question in a page” is slowing down innovation. The modern web and mobile survey doesn’t have to keep following the same “pages paradigm”. This concept is tying us technologically and conceptually to methods to which we can only make incremental upgrades. Sometimes it takes a new approach to unlock new possibilities. Maybe it’s time to rethink the survey metaphor to try to spark new ideas.

Ideas for the Future
Below, we’ve thought of a couple of different ways the survey of the future could look and feel different.

  1. The Question Stream: If we take inspiration from any of the social networks out there, the content is shown in an endless stream of information in which you have to scroll to interact. Instagram for example, just shows you picture after picture after picture. It allows you to do 1 level of interaction (double tap to like) without ever leaving the stream.

    In a survey, this could be done beautifully by presenting the participant with one question at a time, scrolling continuously down to the next, in a way in which all the pixels of the screen are dynamically utilized to optimize the space and guarantee maximum readability.
  2. The Question Fade: The other paradigm involves a similar approach of presenting a single question at a time. However, instead of scrolling through questions, these will subtly fade in, as questions emanating from a page, revealing themselves to the participants.
One paradigm could work better for web surveys, while the other is perhaps more efficient in mobile devices. It sounds like a simple cosmetic change. But the real change happens in the background.

Ultimately, both of these ideas come down to eliminating the time it takes to respond to a survey and improving the user experience. The survey of the future needs to give the perception that things are happening instantly with minimal to no waiting time. While the participant is answering each question, in the background the survey engine has to be loading the rest of the survey, prioritizing the next question in line. Artificial intelligence should help us predict what is the most likely path this participant will take and prioritize those in the loading queue. Pretty much in the same way that Google starts to suggest search terms as we start typing a query in the search bar. These terms are highly relevant and it’s not by chance.

The system can’t wait until the participant clicks next to trigger the next steps. By the moment the participant is halfway through a 5x5 grid, the survey platform should have predicted what will happen next. This needs to happen in real time as the participant is interacting with the questions. Machine learning will make sure that the system becomes more and more accurate as it successfully repeats the prediction process.

Additionally, if we can load a full survey in an “instant-like” experience, we are minimizing the number of times we try to connect to a server to call the next page and load its content. Each server call is potentially a point of failure, and this is particularly critical when we talk about mobile devices where the connections are more unstable.

As we build the platforms of the future, we have to keep a constant eye on what is around the corner. It is our responsibility to keep pushing the industry forward. It is important to question every single step in the research process.

Content from this article originally appeared in ESOMAR in March 2016.

The Author:
Felix Rios is a Market Research Technology Manager at Ugam. He is passionate about technology and beyond the office walls, also enjoys photography.


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