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The Survey Is a Conversation with Our Clients, Too

In my last post I talked about the survey as a conversation with the consumer. But recently it hit home that the survey is a conversation with our clients too. One that - paradoxically - is becoming increasingly more difficult to have as technology improves.

That's because nothing's impossible anymore in contemporary survey execution. Want elaborate skip logic? No problem! Want algorithm-based quota control? Sure thing! Want pop-up instructions and Flash file tours to illuminate complex product concepts? Bring it on.

Want to put all this into a document that your clients can comprehend? Good luck.

Today's questionnaires are more like complex computer code than a series of (related) inquiries, and as a result the task of reading someone else's questionnaire has become intolerable. For sure that's bad research practice - how can anyone else pick up your study and replicate it if they can't even understand what was done? More importantly that complexity leads to bad conversations with clients, who need to "get" what you're trying to accomplish with little need for mental gymnastics. When they don't immediately get the point, trust gets frayed and iterations abound.

I've always said "the questionnaire defines the charts and writes the report." That's still true today, and in all likelihood everything the client (or a colleague) needs to know is in the darn document. Unfortunately more often than not it's hard to tell, and that presents a vexing problem for practitioners who need to accommodate the need for complexity, make sure clients understand and buy in, and keep up with ever tightening timelines.

A list of (modest) suggestions about how to write more effective questionnaires:

  • Use more plain language instructions. I've written more than my share of questionnaire skips that go something like "IF Q1a-b IS < "40" and SAMPLE SUB-TYPE B = "BILL BIXBY" THEN TERMINATE." But in a fast-moving world where our clients aren't necessarily fellow market research practitioners anymore, the tolerance for following such skips just isn't there.

So why not just say, "If the respondent is younger than 40 then don't ask them about The Incredible Hulk TV series starring the (taken from us too soon) Bill Bixby"?

  • Get complex skips out of the document and into a separate set of programmer notes. Sometimes there's no way around detailed and complex logic, but I think I can count the number of clients who care about checking that logic on one hand. Use notations to say what's going to happen in the program; leave the details for an email to the programmer.
  • Put some of the onus on the programmers. It's hard when questionnaires grow complex, and it's even harder for one person to serve as the Rosetta Stone for clients, colleagues, and others. I'm big on the notion that we as researchers need to be better communicators, but that doesn't mean we need to do it alone. Get programming people in the room early, and if they say they can only work with "1s" and "0s" ask them to think again about what industry their serving.
  • Develop "chart plans." With a simple questionnaire you don't need a chart plan, because it's pretty evident when you're going to show Q1 in combination with Q2. That easy interpretation fades in the presence of a complex survey.

I understand (believe me I do) that in the hustle and bustle of finalizing a questionnaire it's almost impossible to develop a parallel document describing the basic charts. But at TRC we've made such documents a standard part of our process. And we've found that when clients know a chart plan is forthcoming, they get far less stressed about whether or not to wade through logic.

What do you think? And how are you dealing with the need to distill ever more complex surveys into easily understood conversations with your clients? I look forward to the discussion.

Tagged in: Market Research

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