By Felix Rios

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 we also usually point out that new forms of research and technology will never kill the good ol’ survey. There will always be a place for it. It will be a complementary technique to enrich all the other data that we generate and collect without even noticing.

We do however, 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. These shoppers of tomorrow arrive fully wired.They pinch to zoom instinctively.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 videos that are 15 seconds long. They text to communicate rather than talk.

The participants of the future are growing up with the concept of instant gratification deeply coded in their DNA. I’m not exaggerating when I say that if we want our industry to remain alive, it is our responsibility to rethink the survey experience of the future through their eyes instead of our own.

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. You can read about it here Facebook is doing something similar with their instant articles. These initiatives come from the acknowledgement that there is a direct link between load times and drop out rates for online content.

Only by acknowledging the existence of this as a problem, publishers agreed with the most important distribution outlets to rethink how content is delivered to the online public. This is critical if they want to remain relevant for future audiences. In the process they are sacrificing some things that would’ve been unthinkable years ago, but they understand the bigger picture.

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”. Each one of this is a risk factor that could potentially cause a participant to drop out.

When a participant clicks on a survey link, he is taken to an intro page of the survey. He then has to click through pages and pages of questions. When loading a survey, we are opening the first page of a sequence of websites, each one triggered by a logic embedded in the script of the survey. Each page/website is loaded individually. This loading is only done after the participant decides to go to the next page.

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.

This is only a thought experiment. We’ve thought of a couple of different ways the survey of the future could look and feel different and we are very excited to discuss them openly.

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.

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 ones 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.

At the moment, we are able to load the heaviest parts of a survey (like images) upon loading the first page. These images are stored in the cache and then referenced throughout the survey from the cache. This has proven to be very helpful to reduce page load time after the initial load. By the way, not every company follows the same standards when programming a survey, so you should check with your vendor if they can do this, as it is proven to reduce considerably load time.

The survey of the future needs to give the perception that things are happening instantly with minimal to no waiting time. Think of Facebook instant articles or Google’s AMP project. We need surveys to follow suit. While the participant is answering each question, in the background the survey engine has to be loading the rest of the survey, prioritising the next question in line. Artificial intelligence should help us predict what is the most likely path this participant will take and prioritise 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 5×5 grid, the survey platform should have predicted what will happen next. This needs to happen in real time as he 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. Discuss these things with your vendors and check what ideas they have.

The same way we advise our clients on the changes their customers are experiencing with their purchasing habits since the rise of online shopping, we also have to understand that the way we ask questions has to evolve. It is important to debate this openly, and implement together the changes that we need to make in order to remain relevant in the future.

Hit me on twitter (@felixafon) or leave a comment below, if you can think of another survey paradigm, different from what we are now doing and what we suggest above, and let’s imagine together if it could transform the survey experience.

Felix Rios is Technology and Innovation Manager at Ugam