Baker follows the four-stage cognitive model proposed by Tourangeau, Rips, and Rasinski (2000). This model tries to explain how respondents process information and survey questions. Baker suggests it provides opportunities to create engaging surveys.
According to this model, when faced with survey questions respondents go through different phases: Comprehension, Retrieval, Judgement, and Response
In this phase, respondents try to understand the information, apply logic, and connect key terms. Survey design can help comprehension by:
- Keeping questions simple
- Avoiding vague concepts
- Being specific
- Defining ambiguous terms and providing examples
Once a question is understood, respondents try to retrieve information from memory and fill the blanks. Survey design can make retrieval easier by:
- Offering cues
- Providing keys to important events
- Decomposing the situation the question refers to
Respondents go next to asses the relevance of the retrieved information, integrate the material, and draw inferences. Survey design can aid judgment by:
- Managing the context to which the question applies
- Decomposing the question
- Discouraging overthinking questions
Finally, respondents have to categorize and edit their responses. Baker focuses here on the influence that question formatting may have in helping respondents formulate their answers. Question formatting can improve the response rate by:
- Avoiding certain question types (e.g., open-ended, numeric questions, long grids)
- Using meaningful scale anchors.
There is a debate among market researchers about how to make the survey-taking experience more engaging and minimize abandonment rates. As a result, survey tool providers are racing to create different question formats (e.g. sliders, heatmaps, etc.), add interactive elements, and actual games in surveys.
Good Survey Design Is A Must
Unfortunately, with the increase of DIY research done by inexperienced actors, the quality of survey design has declined. Although writing surveys looks easy, writing good ones is not. Fun and cool question formats can’t compensate for ill-designed questions.
In short, I agree with Baker that the greatest improvement we need to engage respondents is in survey design.
(An earlier version of this article was originally published on November 3, 2011. The article was last updated and revised on September 5, 2019.)