Quality information is core to our work. The data gold rush has been helped in no small part by online quantitative sample. As convenient as the data are, we can forget that it is the yield of a relationship albeit of the long distance kind and taken for granted like an industrial product. Respondents can be put through a lot in the course of an online study. The vast majority are focused, however some tune out or react badly, or some can drop off completely. They’re not alone. While I’m used to reading lots of questions, when taking the odd survey I too can get bored. Of course, responsibility for engagement in the process falls on both sides, but it is we who manage the interview.
We can express a bit more of ourselves to make it clear to those who will listen: we realize this is a business by and about people. I see nothing wrong at the attempt, even if awkward, of recognizing respondents with “How’s your day going?” or “I hope you are well.” The formal niceties of human interaction have been evolving along since the advent of the theory of mind within us. While collecting data exemplifies the understanding that somebody else has useful experience from their own point of view, the process can seem indifferent to the actual state of the person on the other side. Finding ways to genuinely check in is good manners.
Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we’re also in the business of online experience. I don’t believe it’s going to cause a catastrophic rip in the scientific rigor of our work to express to our respondents they are more than data. Nothing over the top is needed. We can mix in a fun question or two that’s deliberately non-topic. It could be a query on pop culture, or something that digs at the idiosyncrasies we all experience in our lives. Breaks from the expected can be inserted, such as silly GIFs, just to provoke a chuckle. While staying sincere and avoiding saccharine, whatever it takes to acknowledge the humanity in our sample is step closer to a face-to-face conversation. We’re all in this together, so let’s keep the idea of true human contact alive in what we do.