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Survey and Respondent Fatigue

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Survey & Respondent Fatigue

The idea of research fatigue is not a new one – I remember worrying about a response rate that had dropped from 33% to 31% in continuous research we were doing last century. Since then, a couple of things have happened:

Survey Overload

The launch of numerous easy-to-use, cheap-to-run survey tools make it so easy for organisations to run surveys. In the last 24 hours I’ve been invited to give my opinions on my pizza, a website experience or two, the NHS, Twitter, a training course and several recent purchases.

With so many invites we become selective in the ones we chose to respond on; driven by the potential personal benefit whether that’s the mercenary money-off voucher, a desire to ‘exercise a democratic right’ or a more altruistic desire to help a favoured organisation or brand to deliver a better service.

Big Data instead

Countering that should be Big Data. The idea of using data that’s been gathered through observation rather than surveys implies we might not need to ask so many questions, but it doesn’t seem to be reducing the overall volume of surveys. Instead it is often being combined with survey data to provide greater insight.

So it’s certainly worth exploring fatigue in a little more detail n order to work out what needs to be done to reduce it:

Define the challenge

What’s driving the fatigue?

  • Over-surveying – asking the same people for feedback too often
  • Lack of proof of action – asking for feedback and not acting on it, or asking for more feedback before the actions have had chance to make a difference
  • Long/dull questionnaires – that are not interesting to complete and simply take too long
  • Lack of relevance – asking about things that aren’t important to the respondent

Who is the respondent?

  • panel member (most-often online). These people have signed up to a research panel because they are interested in research and happy to share their opinions and experiences. For them fatigue will likely kick-in when the survey itself is boring, repetitive or too detailed for the topic being researched
  • Customers. Depending on the level of engagement, your customers may well be willing to share their views. Fatigue for them will come if you ask them for their opinion too many times or if you ask them about things that are not relevant or important to them
  • Staff. Normally staff would be expected to be willing to take part in research conducted by their employer. Fatigue will set-in if they are asked for feedback too many times. Fatigue or rather frustration will appear if they feel their feedback is not being listened to or acted on.

What impact is fatigue having?

  • Falling response rates. If you run a regular survey and nothing else has changed then fatigue may be to blame. That said falling response rates can be due to other reasons such as lack of survey relevance, quality of sample declining etc. If it is fatigue-driven it will be mostly likely seen in customer and staff surveys.
  • Incomplete surveys. If the survey is long, dull and not relevant, some respondents will simply give up before the end. This can happen across all types of respondents
  • Flat-lining, limited verbatim response etc. When people are fatigued by a survey they will take the easiest path to completion, providing little additional feedback and giving little thought to their answers
  • Negative Survey Feedback. Either separately, or within a survey, respondents may tell you that they are fatigued by the survey, so it’s important to check survey feedback channels for comments

Why is fatigue a problem?

  • With fewer responses, your data may be less representative of the population you are trying to get feedback from
  • Rushed or half-hearted responses will lead to poorer quality data that is less reliable
  • Respondent resentment. If that respondent is a customer or prospective customer that could be bad for business. If it’s a member of staff then that can be bad for morale which in turn I not good for business

How to fix it?

The fix clearly depends on the specific manifestation of fatigue and the audience for the survey, but there are number of actions that can be considered:

  • Do you need to ask the questions? Is it actionable insight or just ‘nice to know’? Can you find the answers from somewhere else? Will the answers have changed since last time you asked?
  • How many people do you need to ask? Rotating sample across waves of research can reduce the burden on individual customers/staff without reducing the value of the data gathered
  • Keep it short and respondent-focused. Ask questions that are relevant to the respondent and in language and style that they are comfortable with
  • Make the survey interesting. There are many question styles available that make surveys more interesting to complete, but there is a fine line between engaging and being gimmicky
  • Consider alternative methods. We do so much on computers, tablets and our smart phones, so actually a face-to-face or telephone interview may be more engaging for respondents simply by being different
  • Prove the Value. Give feedback to the respondent on why their views are important and what decisions the research will inform. If it’s a repeat survey, share the results and actions from last time
  • Use incentives wisely. Small and relevant incentives can tip the balance towards completion, but over-incentivising or using product/discount incentives can be divisive.
  • Ask the respondents. If you think you have a fatigue issue and the reasons why aren’t obvious, then ask your audience. If this approach is used, be sure that the fatigue issue is not exacerbated. So, use a different method, go straight to the main questions and be grateful for feedback given!

Survey and respondent fatigue is a research industry challenge, but one that can be addressed with a little care and understanding. Seeing your research project through the eyes of the respondent is a good place to start. if matchsticks are required to do so, then the project probably needs a rethink…….

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