Surveys? They're too exhausting for me!

How to receive feedback from users.

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© gustavofrazao / AdobeStock

© gustavofrazao / AdobeStock

If you've ever had to design a survey, you might already know it: It sounds easier than it actually is.

I still remember the nerve-racking time during my Final Thesis – "Salient Research in Dialectology". The title: "Typically Franconian – the diminutives of -le and -la as a salient characteristic of the Eastern Franconian dialect?". Or how it could be expressed less academically: "Does an East Prussian recognise that his colleague comes from beautiful Franconia when he invites him for a pint or a schnapps?"

Yeah, well, I know what you're thinking now: "Who comes up with stuff like this?" Maybe "Aren't there other more important questions to answer?" Granted, it was neither a topic that aroused the greatest interest among readers, nor was it a research question that would deliver groundbreaking, game-changing results. 

But: It was a topic that still left some room for field research. A topic for which I didn't have to read thousands of tomes of research literature. And I couldn't. Also because they didn't exist. Instead, I had to recruit a few trial subjects. I had to try to get to the bottom of their dialect perception and question their understanding of speech.

I liked this. I believed that I had good connections and was convinced that I could quickly find enough participants who would love to answer my survey. After all, social media is still there and with only one post on Facebook or LinkedIn, I could reach thousands of people. 100 participants? No problem! Yeah, right.

The gist of it is the following:

People struggle with surveys. Because surveys require openness for not-so-obvious questions, the willingness to be reflective, and the ability to form an opinion. And the more valid the feedback is, the more effort is needed. This requires time, a little bit of effort, and a basic level of motivation.

And it was the issue of motivation that turned out to be the problem: In the first few days I was satisfied with the participation rate. In just two days, a good 25 participants had completed my 20-minute (!!!) online survey. It could have continued like this. But it didn't; the participation rate quickly fell off a table. Why? Because these first 25 people were close friends and family members who wanted to do me the favour. So they were socially motivated, but unfortunately the rest of the world wasn't. And so my survey started stagnating on day three.

So it was already time to take a step back. Start from the beginning and take another look at the motivational research:

What motivates people?

In motivational psychology, a fundamental distinction is made between intrinsic motivation in which the motivation for action lies in the action itself, and extrinsic motivation, where the reasons for action lie outside the action, itself. It can be an incentive such as a promotion or a material reward, but also the fear of the consequences of non-action.

A classic example of intrinsic motivation that has recently become so popular is the hobby of "painting for adults". Most adults don’t paint small mandalas for hours-on-end, in order to be able to hang a self-painted picture on the wall at the end of the day (this would again be an extrinsic motivation), but rather because of their enjoyment of painting, and wanting to switch off their thoughts, and thus reduce their stress. So they’re concerned with the inner action and not with the consequences or the result of the action. However, the need for competence, the feeling of self-determination and co-determination or social inclusion can also motivate people intrinsically. This explains, for example, why so many people prefer team sports to individual sports – the team makes it easier to motivate its players to train.

So far, so good. But what does this mean, with regard to my survey?

I've come up with a few important conclusions that I wouldn’t want to hold back from you, of course:

1.     Bringing effort and motivation into a healthy balance

The initial hurdle must be kept as small as possible. It should never be a respondent’s job to find the survey channel himself or herself, or, even worse, to have to sign up somewhere in order to provide feedback. Rather, the opportunity of providing feedback should be present without any personal involvement.  

This is ideally accomplished by directly linking the survey to a situation from a respondent whose recent experience can provide feedback and perspective on the relevant topic. You experience this with online booking portals, which ask directly after booking, how satisfied you were with today's booking process.

It's important to encourage participants to voice their opinions, but they shouldn't feel that they're being forced to do so. People should always have the option to stop if they lose their motivation.

Basically, in surveys: "As much as necessary, but as little as possible." Ask the most important questions, but make sure that the survey doesn't expand too much. I had to learn the hard way that no one wants to click through a mountain of questions for 20 minutes. Short, concise questions should be the goal, and preferably closed and/or with predefined selection options. Because these are significantly less effort than open questions and are, in addition, much faster and more objective to evaluate.

2.     Promoting intrinsic motivation

It can provide an enormous motivation boost to quickly provide participants feedback on their feedback. Seeing one's own opinion within the context of others' can create a nice sense of inclusion. For example, I had played a spoken word recording to the participants that they had to assign to a dialect. After which, I solved the riddle immediately. The subjects learned right away whether their assessment was correct. So I've also given them insight into the assumptions of the other participants. So the allegedly boring survey turned into a quiz that turned out to be even a little fun.

The feeling of having your say and being able to influence is an incredibly motivational force. I can only recommend that you give the survey participants the impression that their participation is making a difference, because it can really help someone – in this case, me graduating. However, this can also be achieved by, for example, demonstrating that as a manufacturer of a product, that negative feedback in particular is taken seriously. Respond to it. Talk about how you thoroughly evaluate survey results and which actions you can take based on them.

3.     Promoting extrinsic motivation

Idealism or not: a material reward motivates. In the case of my Final Thesis, it was the prospect of one of three 50-Euro vouchers that were raffled off among all of those who took part in the survey, which again, significantly increased the participation rate. A similar idea would be to offer a discount on their next purchase.

Would you like to know how my story ended?

I was able to generate the required number of test subjects and supplement my Thesis with many interesting findings. For example, I now know that it's very difficult to distinguish between Southern German dialects in Northern Germany. I also now know that an Eastern Franconian speaker not familiar with dialects may sometimes sound a bit tipsy, and that not everyone can start with the word "Guckerli", but maybe rather with the words "Schäuferla", "Weinschörli" and "Schnäpsle".

I then took my experiences with the creation, distribution, and evaluation of surveys with me from Franconia to the Lower Rhine Region. Now I incorporate them into projects that require research into target audiences and their perception of information – whether it's an online survey, a telephone interview, or installation support. This is how our customers, but also we ourselves, get to know the users and their expectations even better. In the end, this increases the overall quality of user information.

And this closes the circle: The easier it is for the user to be able to process the information that's important, the sooner they'll have time for a pint after work.