So you need to talk to your target audience to get some answers and you have chosen to do it online. What can you do to make sure your online research project is a resounding success?
Online research, in its many forms, provides the perfect environment to instruct and guide people through a set of tasks to help answer some of the most difficult questions. Online research software make is easy to facilitate the completion of exercises such as asking a customer to keep a diary about how they use a product or service, or posting image snaps every time they make contact with a brand. Whenever using online research to ask questions and collect answers you can turn up your success by keeping it clear, simple and usable!
It’s all about the online interaction
Over the last decade we have observed how people interact with online applications, in particularly how they behave when performing a specified set of tasks. These tasks may be as simple as answering questions in an online survey, completing a discussion question in an online focus group or finishing a set of tasks in an online community discussion. Planning how the questions and tasks will determine the interaction between the participant and the technology will significantly improve your research design.
What to do with pesky files
One of the most common problems we observe is when research participants are emailed tasks, questions and exercises in a file format they can’t open because they don’t own a copy of the software used to create the file.
One of the first things you can do to avoid this is fully brief the person who is selecting participants to take part in your research project. Participants can then be selected with the full knowledge of what they will be asked to do and how they will be asked to do it.
Some online research projects require participants to complete a homework exercise. For example, asking participants to keep a digital image diary of their experiences with a brand, product or service, or completing feedback questions in a document and then uploading it to an online discussion board for comment. Before you do anything, take a step back and ask yourself this question: “can I get participants to complete my exercise by inputting the data for this task directly into the online environment?”
It makes a lot of sense to minimise the technology options for you and your participants. You want participants to primarily focus on answering your questions, and it is also far less work for you when analysing, filtering and reporting on the insights if the data is added directly into online research software.
If you need to send files to participants
If you need to provide a document template for individuals to complete, then we would recommend a file format which is simple to use and can be opened with different software programs and on different computing devices — including PCs, Macs and mobile tablets.
- Most computing devices have the ability to open and edit RTF (rich text format documents) and this would eliminate issues participants have with not being able to open proprietary file types. You will still have to invest time pulling the data together from each file, but it is easier for participants.
- PDF documents are another popular document format which can be used to deliver detailed homework instructions. These documents will maintain the look and feel of your original document, and most computers and portable devices are able to open and read PDF documents. This is a perfect format if you want participants to read the instructions and view any imagery in its original form.
- Another simple alternative, and one which is often overlooked, is saving your documents as images. The advantage is that the participants will be able to view the content in the format as it was intended.
- There is also nothing wrong with supplying more than one format of the same document. As long as you let participants know you are supplying the same document in several different formats.
- The preferred option is to simply add the instructions for the task within the online discussion environment. Everyone who is participating will be able to quickly access the instructions and the environment facilitates rich group discussion. If you need to send a document we would recommend you include instructions about how to access and use the supplied documents.
This might be something like, “Download this document from today’s discussion and open it on your computer. The document is approximately 4Mb is size, which means that it will take a little while to download on a mobile device, so we recommend you download the document when connected to a wireless internet connection. If you do not have a PDF reader it is a very simple to a Free copy by going to http://get.adobe.com/reader/ and downloading the PDF reader from there.“
Be helpful at all times
When assigning tasks and questions for participants to complete make it clear when you want it completed, and the format you want it answered in. Provide instructions about how comments and files are to be uploaded to the online discussion and even consider sharing completed examples to help get your message across. Participants will also need to know someone will be available to answer their questions – this can be easily facilitated within an online discussion by utilising private messaging within the software.
Don’t technology discriminate
All participant computer skills will vary, and it is best not to assume later generations are more technology savvy than our ageing population. For example, over the last decade we have observed how Baby Boomers patiently and willingly go that extra mile to ensure they follow instructions. We have also found some participants born to the generation Y and the Z generation are not as technology nimble as their generation X cousins. The key message here is don’t discriminate your audience when it comes to technology use.