Last week, Ruth and I went to a presentation on gamification based on research by Deborah Sleep of Engage Research Ltd and Jon Puleston of GMI (whose work on gamification won an MRS Award for Innovation in Research Methodology). In their research, Gamification was found to solve the problems of falling response rates and people speeding through questionnaires without engaging properly with the questions.
Improved visual presentation
This research started out from the realisation that filling in surveys is not everyone’s favourite thing to do. Competing with other online platforms and stimuli has seen filling out surveys drop down the list of things to do in a lunch break. At the presentation, examples of long-winded technical questions and dull-looking matrices were wheeled out, and you couldn’t help but agree that surveys could do with being a bit more exciting. We were shown ‘drag and drop’ responses, use of colours and highlighting, and other ways of making surveys more visually interesting and interactive. While question marks remain over the suggested use of images in surveys (even carefully selected images might prime respondents to give particular answers), these kind of things seem to be the first basic steps survey designers should take to make surveys more engaging for respondents. Whether any of this counts as ‘gamification’ or not was unclear, and ‘funification’ or just ‘improved visual presentation’ might be more apt descriptors.
Games mean rules
Then the research into games kicked in. “How does a ten-mile hike in the rain carrying a 15kg rucksack sound? But what about a game of golf?” The hypothesis is that otherwise boring tasks can be made more interesting if sets of rules are imposed. Some of the ideas from the research clearly could and should be taken on by survey designers. For example, when respondents were asked to make a list of their favourite foods, there was an average of six items in response. When told they had two minutes to do it, the figure rose to 35. It is worth noting that participants also spent a whole two minutes thinking about a question that they would otherwise have dismissed in a matter of seconds. In another example, “Describe yourself” yielded on average 2.4 descriptive words, with 85% of respondents answering. When the question was changed to “Describe yourself in exactly seven words” an average of 4.5 descriptive words were used, and the response rate was 98%.
Not all fun and games
The problem is that sometimes being more creative with questioning techniques can lead to confusion as to what the results really mean. An interesting example was given where instead of participants being asked how much they liked particular music artists, they were told to imagine they owned a radio station and asked which artists they would put on their station’s playlist. This prompted people to spend more time giving more information than in a control group. But do we still know which artists the respondents like? What if participants were happy to list artists they weren’t so fond of, if they thought it would make the station a success?
In another scenario, the idea of using rewards to make surveys more entertaining was trialled. Participants were asked to name the five brands they recognised most in a particular sector, and were then awarded points if they identified any of the top five most recognised brands. As you might expect, this encouraged people to second-guess the ‘right’ answers rather than select those most applicable to them.
Proceed with caution
‘Gamification’ research has done an excellent job of highlighting the potential to make surveys more appealing. Techniques identified can clearly be used to engage people in such a way that they answer more questions, spend more time considering answers, and give more information. As we often incentivise survey completion in our research projects to ensure we have necessary response rates or particular samples, it is this accuracy of response and avoidance of satisficing behaviour that strongly appeals. It doesn’t feel, however, that all of the gamification techniques have yet been refined sufficiently to also result in the collection unbiased and actionable data. Nevertheless, ‘gamifying’ surveys seems to be a step in the right direction, is certainly something for survey designers to be aware of, and is an interesting area for future exploration. As this idea grows, for example, we may also see more games that trigger automatic (system 1) and controlled (system 2) thinking to reflect real life decision-making processes.