Using Avatars & Robots for Survey Research
Two researchers at the U.S. Census Bureau recently outlined an emerging innovation in survey research that could reverse the trend towards passive, boring, self-administered surveys that characterizes much online research. The idea is to use internet avatars in real-time interviewing with survey respondents.
Beyond just the heightened interest of having an animated survey, the avatars would be programmed to register and interpret respondents’ verbal answers, facial expressions, and body language through webcams.
Suppose, for example, that a respondent answers a question with detailed information that answers a follow-up question as well. The avatar would use natural language processing to insert that data into the subsequent question, and then avoid asking the follow-up. Or if the respondent looks away from the screen and pauses for time longer than is typical, the avatar can offer a rephrased question or a reassuring comment to re-engage the participant and to put him or her at ease. This type of innovation could bring many of the advantages of live interviewing back into the realm of internet surveys, which are far more efficient in terms of time and cost.
The use of effective avatar interviewers is at least several years away, however, because it involves not only evolving internet technologies, but also advanced linguistic processing, facial and voice recognition technologies, and so on. In fact, the sheer technological difficulty of truly replacing human interviewers reminds us of how absurd it is for research companies to make claims about technology replacing higher-order activities in the research process, such as providing analysis and insight.
At least for now, software and services with “actionable insight” buttons generate yet more mountains of data in need of human synthesis and interpretation. If anything, the role for smart and experienced researchers who can turn all that data into a story is growing. It is growing for researchers who work on the client side and who have direct accountability to the executives who need data-driven insights. And it is growing for firms like Versta Research where the highest levels of intellectual and human capital are central to our work.
—Joe Hopper, Ph.D.