3.5 New ways of asking questions

Traditional surveys are closed, boring, and removed from life. Now we can ask questions more embedded in life, more open, and more fun.

The total survey error framework encourages researchers to think about survey research as a two part process: recruiting respondents and asking them questions. In the previous section I discussed how the digital age changes how we recruit respondents, and now I’ll discuss how the digital age enables new ways to ask questions. These new approaches can be used with either probability samples or non-probability samples.

A survey mode is the environment in which the questions are asked, and it can have important impacts on measurement (Couper 2011). In the first era of survey research the most common mode was face-to-face, and in the second era the most common mode was telephone. Many researchers view the third era of survey research as just an expansion of survey modes to include computers and mobile phones. However, the digital age is more than just a change in the pipes through which questions and answers flow. Instead, the transition from analogue to digital enables—and will likely require—researchers to change how we ask.

A study by Michael Schober and colleagues illustrates the advantages of adjusting our asking to the capabilities and social norms around new technologies (Schober et al. 2015). In the study, Schober and colleagues compared different approaches for asking people questions via a mobile phone. They compared voice conversations, which would have been a natural translation of second era approaches, to collecting data via many text messages, an approach with no obvious precedent. Schober and colleagues found that texting led to higher quality data than voice interviews. In other words, simply transferring old approaches onto new technologies was not the best approach. Rather, researchers will have to customize our ways of asking to these new platforms.

There are many dimensions along which researchers can categorize survey modes, but the most critical feature of digital age survey modes is that they are computer-administered, rather than interviewer-administered (as in telephone and face-to-face surveys). Taking human interviewers out of the data collection process offers enormous benefits and introduces some drawbacks. In terms of benefits, removing interviewers dramatically reduces costs—interviews are one of the biggest expenses in survey research—and increases flexibility; respondents can participate when they want, not only when an interviewer is available. However, removing the interviewer also limits surveys in some ways. In particular, interviewers are critical to encouraging respondents to participate and keeping them engaged while slogging through long and occasionally tedious surveys.

Next, I’ll describe two approaches showing how researchers can take advantage of the tools of the digital age to ask questions differently: measuring internal states at a more appropriate time and place through ecological momentary assessment (Section 3.5.1) and combining the strengths of open-ended and close-ended survey questions through wiki surveys (Section 3.5.2). However, the move toward computer-administered, ubiquitous asking will also mean that we need to design ways of asking that are more enjoyable for participants, a process called gamification (Section 3.5.3).