Think like a fox: Avoiding the direct approach to questionnaire design


The ancient Greek poet Archilochus was attributed with saying “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows just one big thing”. Hedgehogs move slowly and directly to where they want to go, leaving them vulnerable to death caused by predators and motor vehicles. Foxes, on the other hand, move quickly and tend to dart all over the place looking not just for the most direct route but also the easiest and safest.

Often, when designing questionnaires we need to think more like a fox than a hedgehog. The direct approach may not be appropriate. To give an example, a retail client I work with wanted to understand the potential impact on sales of re-branding an own brand product. The product currently trades well but branding is inconsistent with the rest of the category.

The hedgehog might directly ask existing customers how the re-brand would impact on their likelihood of buying the product. Indeed, towards the end of the survey used for this task, we asked people if they would still buy the product if it were re-branded and sold at the same price. Unsurprisingly, very few customers opposed the re-brand. But, in this context, it would be illogical to object. If you’re selling me the same product at the same price but with a different name why would it matter to me? The question is leading and generates little insight.

Therefore, we needed to think more like a fox than a hedgehog. So, we split our sample into 2. Half were given a list of competitor products including the existing branded product while the other half were shown the same list but with the re-branded product instead of the existing one. All respondents were then asked which product they were most likely to buy. The existing brand performed much better than the new brand.

Further questions showed that the reason for this difference in performance is a lack of familiarity with the new brand. Many customers aren’t aware of the brand and even for those who recognise it there is little understanding of what it stands for. In contrast, the existing brand is widely known and well defined.

If the retailer does decide to go ahead with the re-branding they therefore have a couple of jobs to do. Firstly, to reassure existing customers that the re-branded products are the same as the existing products and are being sold at the same price, minimising any confusion that may cause customers to switch brand or retailer. Secondly, they need to raise the profile of the new brand with these customers so that they are as familiar and comfortable with it as they are with the existing brand.

Thinking like a hedgehog wouldn't have generated this insight, insight which has potentially saved the client from losing a significant sum of money in lost sales. Asking direct questions sometimes isn't the best approach. Good survey designers know when and how to think like a fox.

Related posts:

Avoiding leading questions


John Kay: Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly (Profile Books, 2011)

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