This blog discusses good and bad survey design with function, purpose and user experience in mind

I used to study pattern cutting for womenswear design at University, and then went on to learn from one of the most edgy tailors in London’s Mayfair; Oscar Udeshi. Pattern cutting, as most pattern cutters will tell you, is a job in the more unglamourous side of the fashion industry. Pattern cutters are the equivalent to programmers working with website designers. They’re the one’s bringing the fashion designers back down to earth to talk about feasibility in some of the wacky ideas designers have.

Us Pattern Cutting students weren’t illustrating and designing for the sake of it. We were the ones who knew about the architecture of a garment, it’s construction. In any kind of design I did, no matter how beautiful the illustration, if a dress/skirt/blouse couldn’t be made in real life then the drawing isn’t worth the ink you’ve drawn it with. And that’s a lesson I learned the hard way! Oh the amount of fabric I wasted trying to make an impossible garment that looked pretty on paper come to life!


But as with most things I approach, I always try and try again, particulalrly if someone tells me it’s impossible anyway. I once wanted to design a multi-functional coat that could be beautiful, warm to wear, unusual in style (don’t all women want something no one else has?) and looked glamourous. I wanted to design a coat like this because I knew that on my nights out as a teenager, I always wanted something warm (I live in the UK after all), fashionable, and something I could manipulate myself in different ways if I wanted to. I didn’t want to design one of those multi-functional coats you often see in sportswear. I wanted women to want to wear it because it looked good and fitted comfortably.

And so I designed a coat that was reversible, and could be worn in many different styles each way you wore it. But it was the lifestyle and purpose that solely drove the design.

It is with this mindset that I approach our designs for ResearchGames. Each ResearchGame we make is built with purpose and function in mind. I always begin with the research objectives that our clients have, from there I consider the genders, age groups and cultures of the target demographic in order to design a game and a story within that game; a story and game that completely adhere to, and have massive relevance to, the people we are surveying.

People are sceptical about Gamification but I think what people are skeptical about the most is the poor application of Games and Gamification in research. I’ve seen people say that gamification for research is all about bright colours, or even that you have to use nice graphics to make a survey into a game. Actually, the design comes from the function. In my consultation services, I ask people “why have you decided to use this font? Why have you decided to add yellow here? What do these things mean?” And more importantly, what function do they serve?

Earier on this month, I spoke at the UCD 2013 conference in London where UCD stands for User Centred Design. Yep, this was a non-research conference but each and every talk I heard that day resonated with what we should all be listening to and doing in the research industry. Gamified or not, the way we design our surveys needs to have the users experience in mind and the design needs to serve a function and meaning for the people taking part and the clients.

I’ll give you the same example of non-functional design that I gave to the delegates at the UCD conference to describe how wasteful non-functional design can be. I used a non-belt-thing on the back of a coat to illustrate my message. It so happens that a couple of days before the conference took place, I saw a woman wearing this coat while I was sat on the train, and the more I looked at the non-belt-thing on her coat, the more incensed I became. I thought to myself “what is this piece of fabric there for? What purpose does it serve?” and from there, I thought about all the fabric, the buttons, time and money that went into adding this non-belt-thing on the back of all copies of this coat, around the world. And what a waste it all was.

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To ensure that I was really getting the message across about the entire waste of time and money that must have went into this non-belt-thing design, I looked at quantities and cost: 2 non-functioning buttons on every coat as you can see in the picture. Let’s say 20,000 coats were made – that’s 40,000 buttons. If each button, at wholesale price was say, 10p, then that’s £4,000 down the toilet. Just for adding two non-functional buttons to a coat.

Jokingly I added that perhaps this non-belt-thing was there as some kind of pulling device (shown in my drawing below) but surely, it could also be a lifting device?

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As someone who totally loves and appreciates art, I know that sometimes the creativity we see in this world doesn’t always need to have a function, but in things humans interact with, I think functional design allows people to have a better experience. In the case of the girl on the train, would she have preferred that non-belt-thing to be something functional? I’m not sure, but certainly £4,000 could have been put into something that would have allowed her to enjoy the function of her coat a little more. Perhaps some faux fur lining in her pockets to keep her hands warm? Or faux fur lining around the collar to keep her neck warm? While I wanted to take the coat from her and burn the little non-belt-thing, I managed to control myself and let the coat live 😉

This brought me to discuss traditional online surveys in their current state and how researchers are making much more effort with survey design than they’ve ever done before. I discussed the traditional looking ‘old’ online survey and its design was hard to use and disallowed a good, or decent user experience. This survey (which I just copied from Google after typing in ‘surveys’ – yes, this is the face of our industry on Google!) has many words split over two lines which makes it hard to read, and the use of matrix’s have already proved to disengage partcipants. The font itself is hard to read as well.


From there I showed (of course!) how Research Through Gaming are able to design a better user experience for participants, but there are loads of really great examples of well-designed surveys out there where the design serves a function.

Take the Great British Class Survey which went live earlier on this year.

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This survey was easy to use, where the function served the content and was relevant to all age groups taking part and the participants were able to get some feedback.

Another really great research example was produced by the Ministry of Justice, Quebec earlier this year (and still accessible) called Really Open included video and was so emotive in its approach. It used ambient music, a narrator and feedback content. The design of this survey needed to be exactly as it is. With such a taboo and sensitive subject like sexuality, which is what this survey was all about (Questions like “Lucy used to be Luke. How does that make you feel?”) the content needed to be handled sensitively. By using the imagery of the people in question in different scenarios, this was able to stimulate our own experiences and memories, with the music providing an ambient and reflective poise to our thoughts while taking part. At the end of the survey, we’re given plenty of resources to find out more, and actually have a thought-provoking and educational experience.

Really Open Survey

Gamification and/or Games included or not, here’s my own mnumonic, which I totally live by, in designing a survey and I hope this can help you in your own design. These are all things to consider BEFORE designing any kind of research where the function will drive the design.

RACAB Mnumonic

Let us know if you have any particular steps for great design in research, or any other discipline so we can share it with others here!