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What happens when you don't know you have a choice: Making survey questions make sense to respondents

I’m happy to work for a research company that embraces the philosophy that the respondent experience should be as close to the consumer experience as possible in order to elicit the most useful and actionable information. To that end, we employ different techniques that allow our survey participants to make choices – similar to what they would do in the real world. In so doing, we can provide results that are informative and actionable.

But enough of the sales pitch. I recently faced a problem that made me think of choice in an entirely new way: what if a consumer has a choice but doesn’t realize it? What are the potential consequences?

In my case, my physician ordered a treatment that required pre-certification by my insurance company. When I called for pre-certification, I inquired about the cost (my doc had warned me that the treatment can be very expensive). I was told it would be covered under a $250 co-pay.

I got the treatment and several months later the facility that administered my treatment sent me a bill for $1,500. After a lot of phone calls to my doctor, the facility and my insurance company, we finally determined what happened: my treatment can be performed either in a physician’s office (subject to the $250 co-pay) or at an outpatient facility (subject to a $1,500 outpatient deductible). Yet when I iniitally asked about the cost, the representative only told me about the in-office cost – without informing me that this cost only applied to in-office treatments. I was never told that where I received the treatment had a bearing on what I would pay. So I blindly made my appointment at the treatment facility recommended by my doctor.

We know that decisions should never be made in a vacuum. As researchers, we need to pay attention not only to the choices that we’re putting in front of our survey participants, but also to their awareness of whether or not these options even exist. For example, we’re about to launch a survey about an add-on to an existing technology. But we need to take into account whether the respondents even know that the existing technology is available to them – let alone the add-on. Defining and describing the existing product will help us put how interestested participants are in the add-on into context for our client. The more our participants know about their choices, the less likely they are to make a “mistake” in the choice task we put in front of them, and the better the data for our clients.  

VP / Research Management


Michele likes to hijack TRC's online consumer panel to get relevant answers to her burning research questions. She loves asking questions relating to her favorite hobbies - TV and movies, golf, casino gambling and travel - and more often than not the answers can be generalized across industries.


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