Leaving Time in Research Design to Discover Dissonance

Many conversations about research design revolve around the common goal of maximizing response. Whether it is a quantitative or qualitative study, researchers routinely make design demotional-dissonance-245x300ecisions that they hope will mitigate refusals and better the odds of obtaining reliable and valid responses to research questions. Survey and qualitative – focus group, in-depth interview, ethnographic – researchers carefully consider such things as sampling, mode, screening, survey request/recruiting, and overall questionnaire/guide design along with question wording, all with the desire to derive useful outcomes based on a sound approach to maximizing the actual number of people responding to the research request as well as the integrity of the responses received to the research questions.

An important dimension in research design is time; that is, the length of time it will take the survey respondent or qualitative participant to complete his/her involvement with the research. In this regard, questionnaire length (and complexity) is an obvious area of attention in survey research, with researchers such as Jepson, et al. (2005), Deutskens, et al. (2004), and others demonstrating an indirect relationship between length (e.g., in pages or word count) and response rate – the longer the questionnaire length, the lower rate of response. Likewise, qualitative researchers think about how much time to ask of focus group participants or the acceptable length for an in-depth interview with a given target population, knowing that a group discussion of more than two hours, or an interview longer than 30 minutes or an hour, may lead to a particularly high number of refusals depending on the topic and participant type.

With this in mind, researchers often look for ways to condense the research into manageable, sometimes “bite size” portions that make the research request less daunting to would-be participants and simplify research questions to relieve response burden to otherwise complex content. This is especially true these days as researchers are compelled to find more contrived, abbreviated design solutions for the mobile mode.

Massaging the research design to increase response from the people of interest is fundamental to delivering useful outcomes. But what do researchers give up when they reduce the length and complexity of their research to digestible portions?

Anyone who has conducted an in-depth research interview (IDI) will tell you that people are often not able to articulate their thinking when first asked to respond to questions on a subject matter. This may be because it is a topic they rarely think about (i.e., it is relatively unimportant in the scheme of their lives) or the researcher may have asked about some aspect of the topic that the participant had never thought about before being asked. In either case, it is not unusual for IDI participants to voice one attitude at the beginning of the interview only to contradict this thought at some point later in the interview after reflecting and refining their attitudes on the issue. It is these contradictions and inconsistencies that fuel the interviewer’s pursuit of a less tangled understanding of the participant’s perspective.

But identifying contradictions – revealing cognitive and emotional dissonance – and untangling inconsistencies take time. It requires a commitment to survey and qualitative research designs that places a high priority on building in sufficient time to gain honest knowledge of the research participant. These are research designs that are less focused on reducing questionnaire or interview guides to bite-size consumables and instead highly centered on design considerations that foster the discovery of dissonance and help the researcher unravel – gain a clearer picture of – participants’ attitudes.

Is this a challenge in today’s fast-paced, time-constrained culture? Yes, absolutely. But this is a discussion that researchers should be having nonetheless. A discussion that addresses the question: How can researchers maximize response while also maximizing meaning that comes from time spent to discover and understand inconsistencies in participants’ thinking?

Jepson, C., Asch, D. A., Hershey, J. C., & Ubel, P. A. (2005). In a mailed physician survey, questionnaire length had a threshold effect on response rate. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 58(1), 103-105.

Deutskens, E., De Ruyter, K., Wetzels, M., & Oosterveld, P. (2004). Response rate and response quality of internet-based surveys: An experimental study. Marketing Letters, 15(1), 21-36.

Image captured from: http://polyliving.net/2013/04/polyamory-and-emotional-dissonance/

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