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The First Surveys Were Just For Fun

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By Mike Boehm, Director of Communications, MFour Mobile Research

Giving our survey respondents a good experience is one of the keys to successful research. A  fascinating article in the New Yorker caught our interest because it’s about the original user experience for survey-takers.

It shows how a form of survey was in circulation long before the advent of formal market-research questionnaires in the early 1900s – and that it was done just for fun, as a kind of parlor game.

Some very famous names played along during the 1800s, providing intriguing information about themselves.

New Yorker contributor Evan Kindley traces how people began passing around “confession albums” to friends and acquaintances, containing a series of questions about themselves and their views on life:

A fashionable parlor game originating among the Victorian literate classes, the “confession album”… presented a formulaic set of queries on each page—“What is your distinguishing characteristic,” for instance, or “What virtue do you most esteem?” The album’s owner would pass the volume around among her friends, collecting their comments as a kind of souvenir…”

Among those who obliged, Kindley writes, were Karl Marx, Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, Oscar Wilde (author of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Kindley focuses particularly on a questionnaire filled out in 1886 by a 14-year-old Marcel Proust, who would grow up to be a leading pioneer of literary modernism with “In Search of Lost Time,” his epic series of seven novels published between 1913 and 1927.

“The Proust Questionnaire,” as it came to be known, resurfaced publicly in 1924, by which time Proust was two years dead, and very famous. His answers as a teenager were thought to foreshadow attitudes and ideas that were the germ of his great literary career and its themes.

Kindley, a Los Angeles writer who will delve further into the phenomenon in an upcoming book called “Questionnaire,” notes that the Proust Questionnaire’s renown gave rise to the common pop culture practice of publishing questionnaires filled out by famous people, including Vanity Fair magazine’s ongoing “Proust Questionnaire” feature.

Of course, the questionnaires that market researchers create and analyze are no parlor game. Crafting them to be fun is no longer an end in itself, but a means we can try to use to gain a serious end: keeping panels engaged so we can achieve consistently strong completion rates yielding quality data. Still, I enjoy the thought that our enterprise is at least partly rooted  in something done strictly for the fun of it.

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One response to “The First Surveys Were Just For Fun

  1. Great article. Was happy to learn some history on surveys 😉 At Sticky ( we’ve built a loyal following of panelist because our surveys, which include eye tracking are fun to take. We hope to expand on this by adding more gamification elements to our surveys as well. Thanks again for sharing!

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