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Designing Research in an Insta-Everything World


By Caleb Costa

Research suggests attention spans are shortening.

Sociologist David Moxon of Lloyds conducted a study with 1000 people that showed the average attention span has fallen to just 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes 10 years prior. “More than ever, research is highlighting a trend in reduced attention and concentration spans, and as our experiment suggests, the younger generation appear to be the worst afflicted,” said Dr. Moxon, who led the survey.

I recently read an interesting article that discussed a new practice gaining popularity in top medical schools to help combat shortened attention spans in young physicians. It’s called a “museum intervention” and is mandatory at Yale’s School of Medicine for all first-year medical students. The goal of the course is to enhance observational skills and improve diagnostic knack by teaching students to slow down and focus on the details by describing what they see in Victorian era paintings.

When designing market research, micro methodologies accommodate shorter attention spans by asking respondents to complete surveys in just 2-5 minutes. A “micro experience” offers respondents the convenience of participating in between other important daily activities without having to set aside a large block of time for market research. Fundamentally, micro methods capture a respondent’s attention because they fit the way we’ve grown accustomed to interacting in an insta-everything world. In my own personal experience with surveys, I begin to repeatedly check the status bar after about 5 minutes to see how close I am to completion and to earning my reward. Ask yourself, when was the last time you spent 30 or 45 minutes intently taking a survey?

One of the most memorable lessons a colleague of mine shared after some 30 years as a social scientist was, “don’t forget respondents are people too”. It’s a fairly simple concept but is often overlooked as we design surveys using complex methodologies and with exploratory aspirations. It’s easy to forget to focus on the respondent experience; after all we presume a meager honorarium is sufficient motivation for continued attention to each battery of questions.

Getting closer to your (respondent) customer means interacting in ways that are convenient for them, which in turn will yield the best quality data for you. A well-constructed micro survey drills down to focus on only what’s most important. Micro surveys or mini qualitative interviews aren’t designed to replace large-scale market research, such as forecasting or segmentation projects, but rather to help drive improved clarity and strategic decision-making before and after these pivotal longer term projects. A healthy blend of micro experience research with your target audience enables you to reach them more often and in ways that fit their lifestyle, providing additional insight into past and future behavior.

When thinking about lifestyle and convenience for respondents I would be remiss not to mention the continued increase in mobile survey usage. During the month of April in our own research with some 1,661 physicians, we found that 54% completed surveys on their mobile phones, 8% on a tablet and these numbers continue to increase. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a greater number of physicians prefer to engage in market research using mobile devices, but it does mean that all online research should always be designed with this in mind.

I’d like to share a few best practices we’ve grown to adopt at InCrowd after analyzing response rates and dropout data from hundreds of micro surveys with physicians globally. When designing a micro-survey, start by selecting a user friendly and intuitive survey application. The good news is technology in this area is continuing to improve and isn’t too hard to locate. You will also need some familiarity with the way your selected application renders the survey on mobile devices to optimize for a positive mobile user experience.

Three key mobile survey design considerations:

• Question type:
o Keep it simple! Asking complex or clunky questions is never a good idea, especially in mobile surveys. On the rare occasion that you must ask a matrix or grid question, do so at the end of the survey in order to improve response rates and user experience. We’ve seen our internal response rates improve by as much as 11% when following this simple practice. Again, it’s about attention span and learning how to hold a respondent’s interest long enough to acquire the needed information.

• Presenting stimuli, i.e. an image or product profile:
o Size is highly relevant and, more importantly, the amount of scrolling/navigation required when viewing stimuli on a small screen should be minimized. This can vary somewhat based on the application you’re using but a general best practice for optimized online and mobile viewing is to use images 315 pixels wide and 450 for height.

• Time to launch:
o There is a best time to launch micro surveys and send reminder emails to respondents. Not surprisingly, response rates are highest in the early morning before people start their day. Remember to account for time zone changes and if the application you are using doesn’t allow you to send invitations by time zone, consider 8:30-10am EST, giving you a good chance to reach a wide east and west coast audience.

Given the continued increase in mobile usage across all categories of consumers, be they physicians or other highly sought after professionals, an optimized mobile survey experience provides better data when collecting market research online. This is the case whether your respondents interact with the survey via a mobile app or using the mobile web. Our most successful clients use the best practices outlined above to harness micro methodologies. This allows them to fill knowledge gaps in real-time, often providing them with more time to analyze insights and support decisions in an ever-changing insta-everything world. If you aren’t doing so already, consider implementing a healthy mix of micro experience based real-time market research into your marketing arsenal. After all, how valuable do you feel a customer’s attention span is to your research?

Photo by Dr. Farouk

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4 responses to “Designing Research in an Insta-Everything World

  1. Good points, Caleb. I’m wondering whether setting respondent expectations mitigates the effects of somewhat longer surveys? We tell shoppers in our VR simulations that it will take 15-20 minutes before they ever come into the study and don’t see drop-outs.

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Caleb Costa

Caleb Costa

Senior Vice President - Client Success, InCrowd