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the good life in a digital age

why I like free-text fields in surveys

I’ve been doing quite a bit of surveying in recent weeks and I’ve been challenged over my liking for free-text fields.

My colleague/partner-in-crime was worried that the data would be too time-consuming to analyse if we didn’t turn every field into a tick box of some form. I’ve always found the free-text fields to be the ones that contain the most interesting responses so I’m willing to wade through the data.

But it wasn’t just on our side of the fence that concerns where raised. In the latest batch of responses to the survey a couple of people wrote things along the lines “why not checkboxes?” in the field in question.

(of course, if it had been checkboxes, the people who’d wanted free text wouldn’t have been able to complain to me)

An unexpected benefit of the free-text field was that I could spot the spam because they faithfully quoted our navigation back at us when asked what parts of our website they read. The humans were mostly more varied than that.

The question was about what Guardian content they read. It was deliberately vague but most people interpreted as a request for genres and listed out four or five of them. It wouldn’t have been a huge problem to have offered them the main genres and asked them to tick. It would have probably involved a little less thinking for the respondents.

I suspect people would have ticked more things if offered a list.

What I wouldn’t have got was the things that people thought were important but we hadn’t thought important enough to put on the list. A lot of people chose something surprising as one of the four or five things they specifically chose to tell us they read.

As well lots of the expected genres, the responses also included:

  • formats
  • specific topics and countries
  • things they don’t read
  • how they choose what to read
  • who they read
  • which supplements they like
  • countries

They used language we don’t use e.g.¬†Current affairs, Entertainment, International, Global, Arts, Finance, Opinion, Economics, Sports, IT.

I was also interested to see people using Guardian specific acronyms e.g. OBO, MBM, CiF.

Most people responded with a comma separated list which was pretty easy to turn into structured data and then just mop up the stuff that doesn’t fit nicely by hand. And that mopping up gave me an opportunity to learn the data and to begin to understand it.

This wasn’t a big scientific piece of market research, just the beginning of a conversation. And that’s best done without checkboxes.

 

Written by Karen

February 21st, 2012 at 6:29 am