Sometimes conducting market research is like walking to the store to pick up a few things. The survey (the bag you have to carry home) is better if you fill it to an optimal level but, unfortunately, once in the store you are motivated (by not wanting to come back) to ask/ purchase more things. The result. You end up lugging a too heavy bag home worried with every step that it will split open and leave you in the lurch.

Solutions to keep your survey manageable tend to follow from the simple precept that if you are not going to directly use the information to meet your objectives, you should probably not ask it.

Making this work in practice is often more difficult because we naturally don’t want to have “wished for something else” when we are analyzing the survey. Consider these issues when looking at your next survey.

Solution #1: Don’t ask things you already know.

This is a surprisingly frequent issue in survey research. Most organizations have a wealth of information at their disposal but I am regularly asked to ask respondents about this information in a survey even when I am unlikely to use it in the analysis. Note this is particularly true when the questions have categories that do not mean much to respondents (see solution #3).

Solution #2: Don’t ask about demographic characteristics that you won’t use.

The survey industry has been complicit in the idea that demographics really matter and I regularly see surveys with extensive demographic indicators. The reality is that a few points difference between demographic groups, even when significant, rarely changes the underlying business decision. Best response: only ask demographics when they involve critical business issues.

Solution #3: Don’t expect respondents to think about you in your terms.

We are all myopic.We embrace the world in which we live and often go so far as to develop our own language to communicate with our tribe. When it comes to surveys aimed at other people, we need to step back and ask ourselves about our audience. Will they understand?

The fact is that from an insider’s perspective, your world is more complex than it is for the outsider. When you write questions aimed at the outsider, you will have less need to be detailed and more focused on the big picture/ study objectives.

You embarked (hopefully) on your research program with a clear goal. Something (ideally) that you did not understand. Survey research is well positioned to give you understanding because it gives us an opportunity to link thoughts, values, and actions together. It only works, though, when surveys are meaningful to respondents and do not over-burden them.

Do you have other strategies for keeping your surveys focused?