Pete Cape, global knowledge director for SSI, recently shared his thinking behind his updates to the data collection methods module of the UGA/MRII online course, Principles of Market Research (PoMR). Presenting a webinar, "Fit for Purpose: Choosing the Right Data Collection Method for the Problem,” Pete reviewed "three golden questions" that we can use to determine the research method most "fit for purpose":

  1. How much of this data already exists?
    1. None
    2. Some
    3. All
  2. Do I fully understand how this "thing" works?
    1. Yes
    2. No
  3. Do I need to ask any questions here or will I get better data from a meter?
    1. None
    2. Some
    3. All

When you answer the first question, "How much of this data already exists?", if all the data exists, then you can use secondary research, rather than primary research. When you answer the second question, "Do I fully understand how this 'thing' works?" if you don't fully understand the issue at hand, then you will want to conduct qualitative research. But the third question is of most interest: it is a question about questions, a meta-question: "Do I need to ask any questions here?"

For the past 50 years in the market-research industry, the answer has so typically been "Yes!" that we've forgotten to even ask the question anymore. Whether questions were asked of respondents by door-to-door interviews, by mail surveys, by mall intercepts, by telephone, in focus groups, in personal interviews, or finally by online surveys, most research has centered on questions.

Given the ascendency of questions, we've forgotten the advantage of what Pete called "collecting hard data from participants – passive data collection." He pointed out the fallacies of humans as respondents: "We rationalize, we forget, we acquiesce. Some items might be better measured than asked."

Pete reported that major new tools are available and helping passive data collection to find its place. He categorized these new tools as "meters", techniques that require no human intervention:

  • Eye tracking
  • Psychometric galvanometers
  • Response latency (time-based meta data)
  • Cookies to determine if participant had seen a web ad

Mobile phones have become miniaturized computers, opening up the possibilities for passive data collection (with participant permission). Some of the items that can be passively measured:

  • Passive listening from the microphone to detect watching TV or listening to the radio
  • Recording the times phone calls were made
  • Measuring social network size
  • Collecting frequency of music listening
  • Identifying a favorite artist
  • Noting the geographical location of the phone
  • Measuring other items as new sensors make their way into phones.

"No questions are being asked! [With such methods,] there are no problems with recall," Pete pointed out. "Of course, the assumption is the phone is with its owner, but most stats about mobile phones suggest this is true."

Not that there won't be a role for direct questions. "Of course, the passive approach alone captures behavior but not the reasons for behavior."

"The ethical dimensions of passive measurement can't be forgotten. Informed consent can't go out the window," Pete said. "You can't have the accidental collection of data, such as the text of emails or text messages received from other people. You have no permission to review the data from participants outside that device's owner."

"The world of passive research is about to explode," Pete said. "We will see a new range of methods, with some exciting times ahead of us."

The meta-meta-question: How can we get away from questions in our own research?