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This is the first part of our Blog Series, For the Love of Engagement: 4 Ways to Romance Your Respondents, where we share best practices for participant engagement. This post will focus on User Interface Design. Read part two on Discussion Forums, part three on Respondent Fatigue, and check back for part four on Mobile Research.

Also, watch for our on-demand webinar on participant engagement featuring Forrester Research, Inc.

At First Sight
User Interface Design can be like dating: first impressions matter and developing a longer-term relationship is the big challenge.

That's especially true in online market research, since there is a big risk of losing a new respondent (perhaps forever) if something turns them off right away. In fact each question, and each question type, is a point of potential loss: if it's not immediately clear not only what is being asked but how to provide an answer, there's a good chance that your user will move on to their next prospect. After all, there are lots of other apps in the ocean. See the presentation Applying User Design Principles to Survey Research.

Here are the secrets for providing a great user experience on your surveyÛ_or for being a great date:

Catch their eye: You know enough to shave or do your hair before a first date; your interface deserves a trip to the salon, too. Offering question types that have visual interest ensures there is an immediate appeal to the display. But appearance is skin deep, and compatibility with client branding must also be considered. Perhaps most importantly, remember that over time a respondent may encounter a particular question type many tens or even hundreds of times, so focusing too much on flashy visuals can backfire if there is a chance they could become tiresome, obscure, or distract from what you're trying to ask.

Make the connection: When you're making conversation on a first date, you want your date to find it easy to connect: that's why you look her in the eye, or ask him questions he knows how to answer. The same is true for question design: not only must it be obvious what kind of response is being requested, but it should be easy to complete. Your interactive elements offer the equivalent of eye contact: a good-size target gives your respondent something to lock onto, while smaller or more distant elements become increasingly difficult to acquire with a pointing device like a mouse. (Or a finger: remember that a smartphone or tablet may be brought to the "first date," and you should be ready.)

Continue the conversation: In many ways there is a conflict between first impressions and developing an ongoing relationship. Holding their hand may be flattering or necessary at first, but designing for efficient and memorable repeat usage has its own challenges. Work to ensure that respondents can pick up after a time away, and not have to focus on re-learning; try to avoid "learning crutches" when they come back to you.

Show you're listening: It's not stretching the relationship metaphor too far to use the technique of "active listening" as an apt way of thinking about designing user interfaces. According to Wikipedia, it "requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties." When the user makes a selection or sets an option, the interface must behave as an "active listener" and immediately make clear the change of state and confirm the choice. For a more complex answer, like a grid or allocation, it should be obvious at a glance that the user interface "understands" and has reflected back exactly what the respondent is communicating.

Speak their language: You wouldn't expect your date to listen to you drone on and onÛ_but all too often, the text of survey questions can be drawn-out and tedious. Don't count on the respondent reading detailed instructions, or at least reading them carefully: we know that most will immediately focus on the buttons, grid, sliders, or other widgets which actually represent their choices. Language used in labeling these - for example, grid rows - may be more important than any other textual content. Help users get their answers right the first time. We build in as much error prevention as possible to the Vision Critical question types, so that respondents aren't confronted with a trial-and-error experience of getting things "just right" before proceeding.

Keep it fresh: If your first date goes well, you may get a second chance. When the second date or third date comes along - or even the second or third page of questions - you want to keep it fresh by changing up the way you're engaging with your user. If you've been asking visual questions, switch to a checkbox; if you've been offering grids, try a card sort. And don't forget that you must be flexible: some interactions, such as forms, may call for a less visual presentation, using native HTML widgets. See our presentation What, When and Why to Use Visual Questions and our six-step best practice checklist For the Love of Engagement.

If you make an engaging first impression, build the relationship by being efficient, memorable, straightforward and flexible, and focus on the dialogue with your respondent, you will maximize the potential for a long relationship. We wish you many happy years together.

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