It was a glorious summer morning in 1978 and I was beating the streets of a leafy and very upscale part of London, seeking people to interview. My sample base was a random route walk (look it up), which meant that I was to attempt to achieve interviews at properties selected by the route. If a potential respondent agreed to be interviewed, I had to complete that interview.
And so it was that I found myself at 9.05 a.m. at the front door of a large mansion. I rang the doorbell. After a short interlude, the door opened to reveal a young lady in a see-through negligee and not much else.
She had clearly already been at her parents’ gin, but appeared to be sober enough to respond to my questions. When she acquiesced to the interview, I had to accept her as a valid respondent and so we passed into the living room.
Strictly following instructions on the form, which did not include any form of prelude or explanation for the interview, I launched into the first question:
“Before you go to bed at night, what precautions do you take?”
Cue massive embarrassment all round. Nowhere in the instructions had there been any discussion of the fact that this was a survey about fire prevention.
What sort of lousy research company, you may ask, put me out onto the streets with such an appalling questionnaire? A really good one – for this was part of a two-year graduate training program on becoming a market researcher. And the module in which I was participating (or, more accurately, being tortured) was one in which they sent us poor, green trainees out into the field with four appallingly designed questionnaires (the others included an incidence rate of 0.5%, a one-hour interview of repetitive grids and a margarine questionnaire that would induce suicide in both interviewer and respondent). Their objective? To induce in us true empathy both for the interviewers who would have to carry out our surveys and for the respondents who would have to answer them.
Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting David F. Harris, author of the by now standard work on questionnaire design (The Complete Guide to Writing Questionnaires) and we both marveled at how many of today’s researchers are let loose on the world without a scintilla of training. True, there are MSMR programs at about eight universities (some of them very good) and there is the online MRII program as well as the Burke Institute, and the Insights Association’s Professional Researcher Certificate (PRC). But these are as a drop in the ocean compared to the need that exists for real training in the fundamentals of research for everybody involved in the craft – and ‘everybody’ these days includes anybody who logs on to a DIY platform thinking that they can design a survey. Just how much garbage is being fed into corporate decision making, yielding results ranging from sub-optimal to downright catastrophic?
Across the pond, the largest research companies still offer graduates outstanding training (even though it is now one year, not two) but here in the US, not so much. And the great training ‘universities’ such as General Mills no longer feel that is their remit to feed the profession with qualified researchers.
So often I go into companies (even multi-billion dollar corporations) and ask “what’s your training budget?’, only to get the answer “zero”. Willingness to send people to training courses is withering on the vine and yet the ability to train internally is, in some places, non-existent. So, what is to be done?
I believe the answer lies in a great coming together of all of those involved in research education – universities, MRII, associations, Burke and others – to devise a new generation of online/offline training that is imaginative, immersive, comprehensive and affordable. This needs to be a certification program that carries real weight (like the Advanced Certificate in the UK), is supported by a robust Continuing Education program, and leads on to further levels of attainment and professional respect. Lawyers, accountants and pharmacists are not allowed to practice without such certification/education – neither should we.