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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Killam

Hanging Out With Toddlers Will Help You Write Better Surveys

Have you ever spent an afternoon with a lively, relentlessly curious two-year-old? It’s something akin to navigating a never-ending maze of questions. It’s as if their tiny minds, with an insatiable hunger for knowledge, are running a marathon while our adult brains are out for a leisurely jog.

Take a recent spring day when I was strolling through a park with my friend’s precocious two-year-old daughter. Picture-perfect, right? Well, it was until I sneezed. I mentioned, a little offhand, that it must be my allergies acting up.

Her wide, innocent eyes looked at me, a cloud of incomprehension temporarily obscuring their sparkle. “What are allergies?” she asked, her voice a pint-sized echo of curiosity. Suddenly, I was handed an immense responsibility — to explain the concept of allergies to this young mind in a way that she could grasp, without introducing any misleading ideas that she might carry into the future.

A tall order, right? Yet, it’s exactly what we, as survey researchers, do every day. We are the language interpreters for concepts, feelings, and beliefs, tasked with translating them into questions that are clear, understandable, and interpretable by the greatest number of people. We strive to minimize “measurement error” — that pesky inclination of answers to deviate from the “true” value because of misleading wording or misunderstanding of the question.

This process of making a concept understandable and measurable is called “construct operationalization.” But let’s break it down in kid-speak: it’s like baking your favorite chocolate chip cookies. You start with a whole bunch of separate ingredients — flour, butter, sugar, eggs, chocolate chips. Each ingredient on its own isn’t a chocolate chip cookie, right? But when you measure the right amounts and mix them together, you’ve created a cookie.

Similarly, a construct — a complex idea or concept — needs to be broken down into its smaller components or “ingredients” that can be measured. For instance, the construct of “job satisfaction” might be broken down into measurements of happiness with pay, working hours, office environment, and so forth. Just like you wouldn’t throw an entire egg into the cookie mix without cracking it open first, you can’t assess job satisfaction without looking at its individual parts.

Question wording, then, is like the recipe guiding you to combine those ingredients. If the recipe is too complex or uses unfamiliar terms, you might end up with a gooey mess instead of your favorite cookies. So we aim for simplicity, clarity, and precision in our wording, avoiding jargon and technical terms that might be interpreted differently by different people.

To go back to our park stroll, I didn’t launch into a discourse on the immune system’s hyperreactivity to environmental substances when explaining allergies to my two-year-old companion. I simply said, “You know how you don’t like broccoli because it tastes yucky? Well, sometimes our bodies think things like pollen are yucky and they react by making us sneeze.”

While it might sound comical to think that spending time with a toddler can make you a better survey writer, the lessons are starkly real. It requires us to simplify and clarify, to question our assumptions about what others understand, and to translate complex ideas into language that can be understood by the most people. Because at the end of the day, whether it’s explaining allergies to a two-year-old or constructing a survey, our job is about communication and understanding. And who knows, you might even pick up a few new knock-knock jokes along the way!

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