Let's play!

Editor's note: Annie Pettit is chief research officer, North America, at E2E Research. She can be reached at annie.pettit@e2eresearch.com.

Research about insurance isn’t fun. We know. We asked.

We also know why people complete questionnaires. Our survey revealed that 36% of people participate because of the incentive whereas only 11% participate because surveys are fun. These results aren’t surprising because online questionnaires haven’t changed much in the 25 years we’ve been using them. We still rely on templated questions paired with radio buttons, checkboxes and text boxes. People have seen these formats so much that they’re a huge bore in comparison to the easily and quickly accessible 1 million games in the Apple App Store and the half-million games in the Google Play Store. 

Unhappy with those statistics, we decided to run our same survey but with a playful twist to the wording and design. Our new results revealed that 32% of people answer questionnaires because they’re fun and only 25% answer them for the incentives. The simple process of converting a traditionally designed questionnaire into a more modern experience reminded people that surveys can be fun. That they are intrinsically motived to participate in them. 

Imagine how response rates across our industry would improve if every one of us worked to change that 11% to 32% in every one of our questionnaires. It is possible. Here are some techniques you can try right now. 

Use friendly language. Is your writing sterile and scientific or kind and friendly? Most questionnaires are written with formal and professional language because we know that weak language leads to misinterpretations. However, there is a point where words are so formal and precise that they become problematic. They require more advanced reading skills and they feel antiquated and condescending. Excessive formality frustrates and bores people, leading to decreased attention or dropouts.

Beyond avoiding jargon and acronyms, we need to switch from formal to informal language. Instead of asking about coffee consumption, we should ask about drinking coffee. Instead of asking about intent to purchase, we should ask about plan to buy. Instead of asking if they received assistance, we should ask if they got help. One of the benefits of switching to informal language is that the words tend to be shorter and simpler. This in turn increases accessibility for people who are less accustomed to reading as well as those who are working in their second, third or fourth language. 

We can also switch to more interesting scales. Yes, many scales have been finely tuned over the years such that we can carefully track norms from decade to decade. But unless it’s imperative to track that exact norm, it is okay to switch the question up and add a bit of fun and humanity. Change “extremely negative” to “I hate it” and “extremely positive” into “I love it.” Similarly, consider changing “0%” into “0%, uh oh!” and “100%” into “100%, yay!” These options are friendlier, more casual and more similar to the real-world conversations we have with our friends and family. This makes them easier to understand and more engaging.

Finally, ignore stifling grammar rules. In such a time where demiurgic thought is extolled and emboldened, we must comprehend that grammatically impeccable writing is neither necessary nor desirable. Perfect grammar sounds weird and pretentious to native speakers. Our goal is not to create magnificent sentences. Rather, our goal is to create language that is comfortable and easily understood. And sometimes that means starting (and finishing) a sentence with the word “and.” Similarly, instead of asking, “To whom should we send the free sample,” it’s friendlier to end the sentence with a preposition and ask, “Who should we send the free sample to?”

Consciously examine how much formality has been inserted into a questionnaire simply out of habit and not because it’s a better, friendlier way to connect with people.

Encourage! Have you ever worked with a mentor? That encouraging person who pushed you forward especially when you were bored, annoyed or discouraged? Especially when a survey format or topic is boring (I’m looking at those overly repetitive questionnaires with the eight looping brands!), take the opportunity to be the questionnaire author who genuinely encourages and supports people participating in research.

At the beginning of questionnaires, we can do much better than, “Thank you for agreeing to participate in this research.” One of my favorite additions is, “May the survey force be with you!” Other interesting messages include, “Time flies when you’re having fun. Let’s begin!” or “Your guess is better than mine. Let’s go!”

We can be more encouraging throughout the questionnaire as well. Find one or two natural breaks in the questionnaire and insert an encouraging, respectful message. Tell people they’ve done a good job so far and their efforts are appreciated. Remind people that their contribution is respected and valued. Consider fun phrasing like, “Keep on spilling the beans. You’re doing great” or “You’re in the home stretch. Keep going!”

It can be hard to get creative so take advantage of all the creative ideas all around. The internet is full of movie quotes, TV show titles, book titles, expressions and idioms, all of which are opportunities to leverage a play on words. Keep in mind, of course, that every message needs to make sense to people who don’t know the original reference. Get creative, but be clear.

Share your power. Feedback is a gift. And I don’t mean an unwanted gift from your ex. Throughout an entire questionnaire, despite the fact that participants probably have more personal expertise about the category than the researcher, we control the questions and answers they are allowed to give. The participants very likely notice the questions and answers we miss or misinterpret. 

It’s time to hand the controls over to them, at least for a minute. Always finish a questionnaire with an optional open-end text box or audio/video recorder that invites people to share any additional opinions they might have. And invite them to criticize the questionnaire itself. Let people have the last word.

You’re about halfway through the article so you’re definitely in my good books! Keep going!

Create playful wording. Go beyond kind and friendly language and start getting qualitatively creative with questions. In a typical questionnaire, we might see a question like, “From the following list of chocolate and candy bars, please select your three favorite bars.” Because the question is so basic, it’s a prime opportunity to get a little creative. Instead, try asking, “If you could pack any candy bars in your travel bag for free, which three would you pick?”

Another traditional question is, “From the following list of colors, which one is your preferred color for this camera?” Spiced up, that question could be, “Which one of these fruits/flowers/crayons/candies/paintings shows your favorite color?”

In both cases, while the more playful question veers away from the precise original intent, the end result will be similar. As long as the playful question gets at the essence of what we really need to know, take the opportunity to be more creative when you can. 

Create playful question formats. When you have a scripting expert on your team, focus on visuals as well as the words. Again, think of those checkboxes, radio buttons and text boxes we’ve been relying on for ages. For comparison, the games you’re addicted to on your phone or tablet use swiping, flicking, animation and more. It’s about time the research industry caught up and added some excitement to surveys, at least a little bit.

Beyond just showing images of packages and flyers, ask people to click on the part of an image that they love or hate. Ask them to select a painting, flower or meal that best represents how they feel about a cell phone provider. Ask them to find an image before a timer runs out. Ask them to assign chips to concepts. Take advantage of drag-and-drop, swiping and zooming instead of falling back on boring answer lists and open text boxes. We have the technology to do it.

Fool yourself into being creative

No matter how uncreative you think you are, there are lots of techniques you can use to fool yourself into being creative. 

One of the most mechanical techniques is word association. Start by building a list of unrelated prompts, e.g., time, food, restaurants, sports, plants. Then, take one prompt and break it into further categories. For example, time becomes day, night, afternoon, summer, winter, hour, minute, clock. Then, put yourself in a situation related to each of those words. Morning could become “What is the first thing you like to eat in the morning?” or “What do you like to hear on the radio as soon as you wake up?” or “If you were watching the sun rise, which of these beverages would be in your hand?” Repeat for all of the remaining words until you identify a creative idea. Your initial ideas might be boring or even awful but the goal is to design a few playful options, not a replacement for every single question.

Your cell phone, tablet and game closet hold a plethora of exciting ideas. What games are available from the Apple or Google store right now? What games have you downloaded to your phone and used for several months? What board games do your nephews always pull out of the closet? Identify the activities taking place within those games and replicate the essence of them. Ask people to match shapes to products or colors to people. Have them assign pictures of money to different concepts.

Perhaps best of all are TV game shows. A quick internet search for “game shows” results in thousands of inspirational images. Take particular notice of game shows like “The Price is Right” which specialize in shopping and consumerism. They’ve already come up with hundreds of gamified ways to ask how much a product is: Pick the most/least expensive product from this list. Which two products would you buy instead of this one? Which of those products would you swap for this product? 

Let their ideas spark your imagination.

Inspiration is everywhere. It might be difficult to tease out exciting questions when you’re just starting out but over time it gets much easier. The best time to start is now.

Inspiration is everywhere. It might be difficult to tease out exciting questions when you’re just starting out but over time it gets much easier. The best time to start is now.

A few guidelines

To generate the best possible playful questionnaire, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

First, never disregard the basic tenets of questionnaire design just so you can incorporate playfulness. No matter how much you love your newly designed question, no matter how fun and playful it is, if it doesn’t clearly relate to the research objective then delete it. If it’s not logical and clear to old and young, don’t use it. Playful questions need to generate quality data, not randomly fun data. Quality data must always be the first goal. 

Second, think about the audience. If that really engaging, playful question only speaks to a niche audience, it won’t be effective. A playful question that bears no relation to the category is disruptive and confusing so don’t include a basketball game in a survey about hotels. If it’s research about travel, rock the boat a bit and use playful words and games that align with travel. If it’s research with an audience of gamers, change the game and definitely add an extra dose of playfulness. 

Third, allow extra time to pre-test. Questions that incorporate drag-and-drop, sliding or other technical nuances need to be pre-tested in as many platforms as possible – iPhone, Android, PC, Apple, Windows, Ubuntu. Further, read the comments in early completes to see if any of the playful wording has been misunderstood. Playful questions that don’t function properly or are not understood ruin the research experience and create poor-quality data. 

Finally, don’t overdo the playfulness. It’s easy to convert every question into its playful counterpart, leading to a virtual circus show of a questionnaire. Just as incorporating no playfulness is boring, the opposite is exhausting. Aim to incorporate a few pieces of playfulness here and there throughout your questionnaire. Use playfulness with purpose.

It requires courage

Adding playfulness to questionnaires requires courage. It’s scary to ask stakeholders to cast aside decades of outdated norms in favor of creating a research experience that more people will actually want to participate in. We’ve put a lot of faith into norms that made sense five years ago but sometimes those norms aren’t “correct” now – not that we ever knew what “correct” actually was. Valid norms are a product of allowing people to express their thoughts and opinions in ways that feel friendly and comfortable.

By using these techniques, I hope you’ll see a shift in your participant experience metrics. Beyond helping people feel more comfortable sharing their real and well-thought-out opinions in research, you’ll create better data for yourself and share in creating a better future for our industry. 

Thanks a bunch for reading this article. I hope you found a tidbit or two that you can start using today!