What does Respondent Engagement Really Mean?

This is the second in a series of articles on the topic of Respondent Engagement and enhanced survey experience satisfaction.

I’ve noticed several recent publications have referred to “respondent engagement” as an alternative phrase for “getting people to cooperate with survey invitations.”  Over the years, I’ve investigated other literature streams and found that from a psychological perspective, the term “engagement” goes much deeper—and has more profound implications for survey research.

According to other scholarly sources, “engagement” is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when the mind is highly focused on a specific task or activity.  Tasks or activities that the mind finds interesting, important, fun or challenging are more apt to create a state of “focus” or “presence,” in which the person’s attention is described as “captivated.”  In this state, other external distractions (i.e. phone calls, people talking in the background, other media, etc.) become more-or-less cognitively invisible.

If we can create this heightened sense of focus (resulting in a state of maximum concentration) in a survey environment, we can yield higher quality responses and “mindfulness.”  The main task becomes to create such an appealing activity that survey problems like “speeding,” “straight-lining,” “random responses,” “lack of introspection,” or “doing anything to get through this boring questionnaire,” are less frequent.

Another literature stream that is potentially useful for survey applications is from the psychological study of electronic gaming.  As we talk about “gamification” in the research industry, we should be aware of what makes games appealing in general.  Interactive game manufacturers have long used data collection techniques that measure the level of “engagement” being driven particular game-play activities.  Some of the more interesting techniques include eye-blink measurement and rate of breathing.

It has been documented, that when a game is particularly engaging, the rate at which the players blink goes down.  If the focus is profound, the blinks-per-minute can drop significantly from the normal rate.  The fewer the blinks the more intense the concentration that the game is capturing.  This level of engagement is directly related to the satisfaction with the gaming experience and the desire to keep playing.

The rate-of-breathing in a game player has similar interpretations.  When someone is highly engaged, the change in the rate of breathing can be measured.  Interestingly, either significantly faster or slower rates of breathing are linked to intense focus.  If there is risk/danger in a particular type of game element, the breathing slows (the player is literally “holding his/her breath” pending an outcome).  If a great sense of winning or success is engendered in an activity, the rate of breathing can go up—savoring the expectation of a positive outcome.

When measurements like these have been utilized to discover what types of game elements lead to the greatest levels of engagement, a number of online tasks and activities that drive focus have been isolated.  These same types of elements may be useful in the development of truly engaging, gamified surveys.  These include:

  • Concentration Tasks (watch for something to happen)
  • Games of Differentiation (which one of these is different?)
  • Sorting and Matching (which of these are the same?)
  • Learning and Exploration (what is new?)
  • Problem Solving (can I solve this puzzle?)
  • Manual Interaction Skills (how fast can I do this/shoot this?)
  • Creative Construction (what can I build?)
  • Tests of Knowledge (am I smarter than the next person?)
  • Games of Chance (take a risk and hope that I win—or not die)
  • Human Interaction (can I chat with someone experiencing the same environment?)

Anyone who has played games in the online or console environments, will recognize these elements and see how they have been developed to produce fun and exciting gaming experiences.

In future blogs, we’ll look at each one of these in greater detail and imagine how survey design (particularly in the interactive online world) can incorporate these learnings and drive “real engagement” with our respondents.  And yes, this expanded notion of engagement will also drive respondent cooperation, particularly since satisfaction in one survey experience is highly correlated with future participation.

Bill MacElroy is Chairman of Socratic Technologies, Inc.

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