I’m old enough to remember typing pools – though not old enough to remember when the secretaries in them were using typewriters. They were using word processors – not software like Microsoft Word but hardware like the Wang OIS, a dedicated system for timeshared word processing. Researchers would handwrite their reports and give them to the typing pool to type up.
With the IBM PC, the researchers themselves became typists, though there were many jokes about having “ten thumbs” and “hunt and peck” typing. The researchers would type the report and then give it to the desktop publishing pool to fix the typos, produce the charts and graphs, and format the reports that would go to the clients.
I’m also old enough to remember desktop-publishing departments – and I remember when the LaserWriter printer packed the most powerful computer of any Apple system sold.
With the Macintosh, the researchers became the desktop publishers too and were now doing tasks that dedicated professionals had done before. Even though this led to “ransom note” formatting and non-esthetic results, the typing pool and desktop publishing pool staff were let go.
Has the time now come for survey researchers themselves to follow typists and desktop publishers out the door and into obscurity? Will the quality of survey research decline as a result?
Survey software, like desktop-publishing software and word-processing software before it, has transformed a generation of business people into Do-It-Yourself researchers. More people are conducting surveys than ever before. Many of these are people who would not be able to afford to hire a researcher: doing it themselves is the only option.
Yes, the quality is often atrocious. What typos were to WordPerfect documents and what awful font choices were to Harvard Graphics presentations, leading questions and bad scales and missing skip patterns are to survey software.
Yet the worst surveys I have ever fielded were written by market researchers. The 200 questions all using an agreement scale (known to be obsolete since the 1960s). The 10 x 10 matrix of 1-to-10 dropdown boxes – 100 questions on a page! Questionnaire after questionnaire failing to reflect research-on-research best practices or even a basic awareness that consumers are predictably irrational — not number-crunching automatons.
The amateur starting with a professionally written questionnaire template has a better foundation to start with.
So I celebrate the Do-It-Yourselfer!
Many will even realize that it’s harder than it looks to conduct good survey research. And those will be our customers of the future: they will have some hands-on practical experience with having done a survey, and a respect for the effort involved. They will appreciate expertise, but they will pay lower rates for it than ever before.
No, the survey researcher will not go the way of the typist or the desktop publisher.
We will be landscapers in a country where most people own lawnmowers. Suitably humbled, following behind our self-propelled survey engines. And rededicating ourselves to better knowing our craft than we did before.