The European Social Survey electronic questionnaire device

By Professor Rory Fitzgerald, director, European Social Survey ERIC, City, University of London

When the pandemic struck in early 2020, face-to-face data collection ground to a halt in most European countries. As a (repeat) cross-sectional (crossnational) survey, the European Social Survey (ESS) was unable to switch modes to re-interview panel members (like its sister project SHARE or UK Understanding Society for example). There was, therefore, a real risk that if a return to ‘normality’ was delayed (or never occurred at all) the ESS would be unable to collect any new data at all for its 10th round. One way the ESS has risen to address the challenge has been to try and develop an ESS electronic questionnaire device (ESS EQD).

The idea behind the ESS EQD was to take an existing tablet and adapt this to allow those unable or unwilling to complete a web survey to still answer the ESS. They would do this by entering answers into a tablet themselves. This would ensure data could be captured immediately in digital format and avoid a barrier identified in our earlier web panel work where ‘offliners’ struggled with connectivity and logins when provided with a device to complete our surveys. The ESS EQD, therefore, enables offline respondents to answer a survey in a very similar manner to those completing it online using their own devices. This also avoids the problems of a paper self-completion survey that can be difficult to navigate and appear very long due to routed sections.

It is of note that, while those without internet access in the UK are now less than 10% of adults, the figure is as high as 30% or more in some ESS countries. Furthermore, the offline population is often highly concentrated amongst older, rural and less well-off respondents. The ESS EQD, therefore, allows the possibility to include most of the population in a digital self-completion survey.

The design of the device itself is being organised to ensure it can be used by those with little or no experience of using computers or smartphones. In addition, the data must be captured in offline mode to ensure the ESS EQD can be used when there is no internet connectivity. The device can then be switched to online mode later by a fieldworker to enable the data to be uploaded to a central server. It is envisaged that fieldworkers would deliver the device to the respondent’s doorstep, engage the correct respondent with the survey, and briefly explain how to use the device. They would then return later to collect it, and take it home to upload the data before cleaning the device for further use. However, the development project is also considering the feasibility of delivering the devices in the post, or having respondents post them back.

ESS is working with NatCen Social Research in the UK and CentERdata in the Netherlands to develop the prototype. We are currently experimenting with a standard tablet and a smaller Kindle-like device. A selection of ESS question types has been programmed, and initial user-testing is taking place in the Netherlands and Slovenia. Emerging issues have included: how to switch the device on and off; where and how to tap on the screen; how to navigate forwards and backwards; as well as the font size and spacing. We are also comparing text entry and voice recording for open answers, and exploring how to assist respondents during the questionnaire process when there is no interviewer present. Once the initial usability testing is complete, we will move to acceptance testing in four countries to see if respondents would be willing to receive the device, complete the survey, and return it safely. Future projects might help to further develop the device, such as providing a recording of the question wording for each item to help those who are less literate use the device. Even if the ESS EQD is not, in the end, used in this immediate pandemic situation, it is hoped that such a device could be part of a future switch of mode in the ESS to help include the offline population in a scenario where internet becomes the primary data-collection mode.

The text was originally published here.