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The future of surveys

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The history of surveys

During a time with lesser technological possibilities, but an equally intense interest in gathering data on peoples' opinions and feedback, researchers had to walk from door to door in order to conduct face to face interviews or send pen-and-paper surveys by mail roughly during the 1930s until the 1950s.

The enormous effort and time this consumed made it very difficult for conducting quantitative research. Potential respondents had to be researched, approached, questioned and subsequently data had to be processed and evaluated by hand to derive proper results.

Response rates during these early times of survey research were astonishingly high and could often reach 90% or higher levels. This was due to the huge effort of the process which resulted in only very few surveys being conducted at all.

The next stage of survey-taking from approximately the 1960s until the 1990s included questionnaires via telephone, i.e. cold-calling potential respondents that were verbally asked a list of survey questions.

The present of surveys

From the 1990s until today, face-to-face interviews declined due to difficulties in contacting and interviewing target audiences for personal questioning, but also the number of telephone surveys decreased due to the prevalence of mobile phones.

However, technological advancements in the shape of new communication channels running via the internet and an increasing network of users online lead to a shift in survey research. Web-based surveys became the prominent way to collect research data from questioning people as they were contactable at any time and any location in large quantities.

As a result, adjustments had to be introduced that would change population construction, survey sampling, survey design, statistical evaluations as well as technological expertise in mastering new tools for data acquisition.

Due to lower costs per respondent acquisition since the arrival of the internet, people have been overloaded with the quantity and exposure of online surveys, thus leading to strong response rate drops. Consequently, more money has been necessary to recruit samples large enough to meet survey specifications.

Strangely, making contact with prospective respondents is harder nowadays than it used to be in past times despite the technological possibilities. No technology at its current status quo can automatically persuade people to participate in surveys, especially when the aforementioned overload puts people in an emotional state of aversion towards survey invitations.

Nevertheless, due to the availability of vast personal data and survey panel providers, targeting the most suitable potential respondents for a representative population sample as well as voluntary and beneficial survey participation options have only become possible due to the intelligence of technological innovations.

The interplay and long-term consequences of the negative and positive factors attributed to modern-day survey research methods and approaches cannot be conclusively forecasted at this point in time.

What is safe to say though is that technology will keep advancing in the future and with it the tools and possibilities to conduct survey-based research.

The future of surveys

The question remains what the future of survey research will look like. This question affects several factors or entities involved with survey research. What will future survey tools and methods look like? What will future peoples' attitudes or general emotions toward surveys be like? How will future survey creators deal with possibly tremendous shifts in their professional fields?

We have put together some theories on how survey research may change and affect these aspects in question.
  • Issues concerning high respondent survey fatigue and low response rates will most likely prevail within the future, especially due to digital communication opportunities that tempt many people or organisations to get their surveys out there.
    → This will potentially require an even stronger incentivisation or compensation of surveys for respondents to overcome inhibitions or aversions.

  • Interactive surveys might become a predominant form of conducting surveys, thereby enabling respondents to chat with survey creators.
    → This might increase the attractiveness of general survey experiences due to a proper dialog, a kind of hybrid of old and new methods, i.e. bringing the old-school face-to-face interview format into a digital survey context.

  • Open text questions will be increasingly easy to analyse for artificial intelligence (AI) tools and therefore deployed more often without concerns about the evaluation.
    → This might benefit survey creators in a manner that it offers more flexibility and appreciation for respondents who may then respond in their own words instead of being forced into a certain response grid.

  • The current trend toward the dominance of mobile survey-taking will likely persist and grow.
    → Depending on the technological direction we are going to take with regard to portable smartphone computers, responsive web technologies will remain most important also for survey tools; furthermore humans' attention spans within digital environments will continue to converge to zero.

  • A potential alternative approach with respect to technological advancements could be surveys conducted via augmented or virtual reality experiments, i.e. putting people into a digital environmental context or a real-life-digital-hybrid context where real-life interviews or surveys are simulated which ultimately might augment the entire survey-taking experience.

  • There is a reasonable possibility that a replacement of human respondents by intelligent machines might take place when conducting surveys to avoid the central issue of survey fatigue.
    → Machines with sufficient learning progress may hence represent opinions of a human population which would render human respondents obsolete.

  • Looking even farther into the future with an even more speculative theory, the possibility of humans and machines fusing to create cyborgs of sorts may alter survey research as we know it. This could potentially someday enable survey creators to download contents including opinions and feedback from respondents' brains which will render the actual process of taking surveys obsolete. Admittedly though, this is rather far-fetched at this moment in time.

Nevertheless, just like any other area of our everyday lives, survey research will continue to be subject to intense paradigmatic shifts in the future which might bring a new sense of excitement to this field again.

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