Well over a decade ago when we first started doing Web surveys I had an on again, off again argument with colleague who used to say, "A Web survey should look like a Web site." My counter was that motivations of site visitors are different from those of survey respondents. Site visitors come of their own accord looking for information or to buy a book, a CD, or a camera and are willing to struggle with design elements to find what they are looking for. The amount of effort they are willing to expend is equal to the desire to find what they are looking for, tempered by the difficulty of finding if offline somewhere else. But survey respondents are only there because we've invited them and their motivation is weak. They are information providers rather than seekers; the effort they are willing to expend is considerably more limited; and if the task gets too hard or confusing many of them will just bail. None of which is to say that survey designers cannot learn a great deal from Web designers and Web usability experts.
I was reminded of this when I stumbled across an old post by the Web usability expert, Jakob Nielsen titled, "Mastery, Mystery, and Misery: The Ideologies of Web Design." His simple summary says it all: "Simple, unobtrusive designs that support users are successful because they abide by the Web's nature– they make people feel good." The ideologies:
- Mastery is all about empowering uses and requires a simplicity of design in which they intuitively know what every elements means. "Understanding what they're being shown and knowing what they must do to achieve a desired effect—that's the stuff of mastery."
- Mystery obfuscates choices and is engendered in users when designs drift away from simplicity to use novel or exciting design elements in the belief that simple is boring. People don't want puzzles to solve, they want to understand quickly exactly what they need to do to get the result they want.
- Misery sets in when design oppress users and either restricts their choices or provides so many choices that users are puzzled about how to act to achieve their objective.
Nielsen obviously sees Mastery as key and concludes by reminding us that users are goal driven, have little patience with having to figure out what to do next, and view the Web more as a tool than an environment.
As researchers we understand that they first requirement is to write questions that are clear, easily understood, and unambiguous. But the Web requires that we also present them in a way that makes it as easy as possible for a respondent to answer them. Simplicity not gadgets and puzzles is the shortest path to that goal. For us, too, the Web is just a tool.