Obtaining insightful written answers

Editor’s note: Desirae Cox is the senior project director at Echo MR. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “Do your participants have “the write” stuff? 

In the past few decades, research has seen a massive expansion to the virtual world. Online discussion boards, co-creative activities and various other methodologies have emerged as fruitful ways to gather insights, all while participants sit comfy and cozy behind a screen. Research in the virtual space has endless benefits, but also presents new challenges. Nonverbal long format and interactive research activities come with their own challenges, especially in our era of internet slang and shorthand.

Verbal and written responses 

Written articulation is most important when there’s little to no verbal component of your research design. The significance depends on where you’re relying most to find your insights. If you’re conducting one-on-one interviews or focus groups, a participant’s ability to write down their thoughts is likely not as relevant. Every person has their preferred method of communication and many people excel at verbal expression but fall short when it comes to putting their pen to paper. This isn’t to say that including a short open end in your screener or questionnaire isn’t necessary, but we’ll touch more on this later. 

Checking a respondent’s ability to thoroughly write or type out their thoughts is most critical when your research consists of such. Are you encouraging everyone to interact with one another in forum style chats? Is this a live session where participants are typing out responses and thoughts in real time? How about a diary study, where you’re wanting candidates to track their day-to-day habits and perceptions? If your data depends on the participant’s ability to relay the bulk of their information from a pen or keyboard – then you’ll most definitely want to build in written articulation questions in your recruitment process.  

Incorporating creativity

These questions can take many forms, depending on your goal in the recruitment process. As mentioned previously, even if the research isn’t based in text response collection, you can still use written articulation questions to get a sense of the respondent's creativity. Creativity questions serve you best when they’re fun and unrelated to the topic of the research. Below are a few personal favorites:

  • Describe your dream vacation. Where are you, who are you with and what are you doing? 
  • If you could have dinner with one famous person (living or deceased) who would it be and why? 
  • Tell us about one of your personal hobbies. What is it, how did you discover it and what value does it bring to your life?

Switching gears to a fun subject is often a great way to observe someone’s enthusiasm and ability to provide an adequate description, although it may not give us much insight into their knowledge or experience of the specific research topic. Creativity questions are also great if you're planning to build any brainstorming or concept creation tasks into your research. 

The benefits and challenges of written response questions

Taking this a step further, written articulation questions can also be used as an extra layer of verification. Are you looking for bioengineers in the U.S.? How about individuals who live in Columbus, Ohio and frequently dine at Mikey’s Late Night slice? Does your research need insights from individuals that recently submitted an insurance claim through a specific carrier, such as Allstate or Geico? If your research audience is niche, this is highly encouraged, as quality candidates in your target audience would be able to write about these experiences or products in depth. You’ll quickly note that respondents giving one sentence answers, completely broken grammar or sporadic and irrelevant answers more than likely are not the individuals that will fuel your insights needs. Written and nonverbal research requires candidates with a strong knack for transposing their thoughts to paper (or a Word document/research platform!) The downside to asking specific written response questions during the recruitment phase is that it’s nearly impossible to probe for knowledge on a subject without giving away the topic. If keeping your research category and motives hidden from the participants is a top priority, this could present some challenges in terms of validation.

Your research design should ultimately guide what types of written articulation questions you build into your recruitment process. These prompts can serve a variety of goals and provide a “sneak peek” into the participants that will be guiding your insights.

Helpful tips for crafting your written articulation prompts

  • Enforce a minimum word count of around 50-150 words, depending on the aim of the question. If an applicant can’t meet a minimum requirement up front, they likely may not be able to contribute an abundant number of responses in your community, diary study, etc. 
  • Don’t overbear your respondents with multiple open-ended prompts. While quality assurance and relevance is the key to productive research, it’s still important to avoid fatigue and create a desirable respondent experience. 
  • Make your questions open-ended and give room for respondents to elaborate and avoid leading their answers.
  • Whether you're gauging creativity and articulation or looking for an additional level of validation – try to have fun with probing respondents! People value their time and are far more likely to commit to tasks when they find it interesting!