In a previous post, I discussed how the EAST framework, built from behavioural economics, can help diagnose compliance problems and be used to increase the number of your customers. In this post, I’m going to show how I use the framework for fine-tuning research design to improve response rates in both qualitative and quantitative studies.

EAST is an acronym for Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely and was coined by the Behavioural Economics Unit in the UK government, as a simple way to remember four broad areas we can modify to change behaviour.


Be Easy

Make doing the study easy. The introduction needs to be short and give only the key information on survey topic, length and why they should complete the survey. With the rise of online panels for surveys and recruiters’ panels for qualitative research, there is an implicit assumption that because people are being paid we can dispense with the niceties of persuasion.

Once people start the survey, every attempt must be made to help them give the answer that best reflects their thoughts or actions and in the fastest possible way. In a survey, treat pixels like gold; use sparingly. Many of the advanced survey tools like facial coding, heat maps and drill down formats that move the complexity from the participant to the backend coding where it belongs.

The overall questionnaire design should also feel like a natural progression. For novices this means a pyramid structure moving from general to specific, while with experts moving from specific to general can work best. For brand imagery and health tracking studies, I’ve developed an image and performance analysis approach that dispenses with long lists of statements for a simple choice-based approach.

For studies among customers where there is a strong chance of high refusal, sending a pre-invitation or notification about the survey beforehand refusals rates dramatically fall in both qualitative and quantitative studies. Doctors, IT Managers and government personal are particularly receptive to pre-invitation messages with a general questioning area outline.


Be Attractive

Ugly questionnaires are not just an affront to our aesthetic sensibilities they also lower response rates and increase our suspicion about the information. We want people to feel at ease when completing a study and not for the study to become the focus. My experience is that by making the questionnaire – or stimulus for qualitative studies – attractive, participants are less likely to disengage and give you flat line responses. A flat line response is when participants just give a pattern response, like all ‘7’ rather than think about their answer.

In studies I try to use a variety of response approaches and question types to stimulate interest and self-reflection. Going full gamification is not necessary, simply using five star scales rather than a numeric 1 to 5, or using brand logos instead of just text also works.

For overall design, as a general rule, I use principles of minimalism; plenty of white space. For mobile surveys this approach is even more important in achieving focus. Our targeted end result is to make the process seamless rather than the focus.


Be Social

We are a social creature. Being a participant in study can be a social experience. Framing a study as having a purpose can remind participants, especially if they are customers or part of an industry, they are helping to improve things can further motivate participants to engage and be accurate.

To further boost survey response rates, letting people know that others like them are doing the survey can help. So does letting participants know that the average timer taken by others to do the survey was X minutes rather than saying it is X minutes can also increase response rates.

Despite my use of social cueing for engagement, I avoid using it to justify or frame a question, unless the social cue is part of the measurement. Telling people that listed below are ways others have described a brand, at best imply they should agree and at worst, builds distrust. Have you ever heard someone – outside of marketing advertising describe a brand as ‘this brand really understands me’? Have I heard a person in qualitative research say that the company or staff understand them, yes; a brand, never. Leave marketing speak for internal use. If you feel you have to justify the description then you should look at rewording it to sound like something someone would say, or at least think.

By framing the study in a social context can also help people feel a part of something broader and increase their motivation to be part of the study and be accurate.


Be Timely

Surveys about an event that are done within a short time after the event have a much higher response rate than when they are done a long time afterwards. Likewise, surveys are done while a person still feels they have a relationship with a provider achieve much higher response rates when the relationship has ended. It is better to do many small surveys and then report them together than to try and do one study that drags opinions across time into one measure. In study with one client, this response rate moved from around 80% with current customers to less than 5% a month after they stopped buying and almost nothing a year later. This company also had a strong net promoter score.

Doing research close in time to an event increases the amount of detail that we can capture. Memory fades fast for detail, leaving only a shadowy gist. In addition, research done within the context of a need can give vastly different results to when the need is yet to happen or is no longer there. Studies I’ve done in the past on allergy, cold & flu, pain and addiction done outside the need severely underestimate the strength of product consumers want when the time is right. Getting people to describe their experience can help reduce context bias. Sometimes the context bias is an insight in its own right that we can use.

When next designing a study or thinking about briefing in a study, consider how your study response rates and responses might be affected by Ease, Attractiveness, Social and Timing factors and how you can use these same factors to improve insight validity, reliability and reduce costs. Four questions you should ask yourself are:

  1. What can we do to make participating and complete the survey easy?
  2. How can we design the layout and structure to attract interest and what will detract?
  3. How can we help people feel they are participating in something they will enjoy and that it will be of value?
  4. How will timing affect results and when is it best to undertake the study?