The Birth of Socrates and Large Sample Qualitative Surveys

I started at Quester® in 2001 as part of the team tasked with developing the world’s first online moderator. We named our creation after the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates. The name Socrates was chosen due to what our team of developers and the company’s founder, Charles Cleveland, were trying to accomplish. Dr. Charles Cleveland, a Drake University sociology professor who founded Quester in 1977, was obsessed with understanding how people think and discovering what they truly thought. He founded Quester as a marketing research company specializing in doing one-on-one qualitative research. He did this through one-on-one interviewing, focus groups, and phone interviewing using a call-center environment.

Cleveland, with his background in social psychology, had a true purpose and desire to really get into people’s heads and understand what they were really thinking. As a result he trained his interviewers and moderators in a unique way, to interview respondents like a psychiatric interviewer would. He trained interviewers to probe and dig deep into responses to get as much depth and information out of the respondent as possible. This, he believed, gave him and his team a better understanding of what people really thought about a product or experience they had. Obviously companies want a better understanding of what consumers think of their products or what drives consumer buying decisions. Cleveland’s work proved to be very successful and his unique approach was in high demand.

Cleveland always wanted to do large samples but his training and approach proved to be quite labor intensive. Anybody familiar with qualitative research understands this common problem. The results you get from a qualitative approach are very rich and insightful but scaling and quantifying the results remain as huge downsides. Cleveland had the answer – develop a software based moderator which could interview hundreds or even thousands of respondents at the same time. Instead of training individual moderators and interviewers, which were limited by how many respondents they could interview at any given time, Cleveland applied the same techniques and methodologies to a computer program, which could be scaled.

This is where my journey with Quester started. I was bought aboard in 2001, with several other developers, to join a team that worked closely with Dr. Cleveland and his researchers. The goal was to develop a program that would allow Cleveland to conduct interviews on the larger scale he always envisioned. Since the software was written to apply the same psychiatric methods Cleveland developed and used the Socratic Method to invoke discussion and gain a better understanding, the software was given the name Socrates. Over the following three years, Socrates was developed, or dare I say, born. In 2004 Socrates conducted his first large scale qualitative market research project.

During this time there was another shift taking place in the marketing research industry. As more and more people were connecting to the Internet, it was common place to find broadband internet in most homes, which opened up another channel for market researchers to reach consumers. Marketing research firms were exploring the option of using the Internet to deliver surveys which traditionally took place over the phone or in person. The biggest advantage of delivering surveys via the Internet was the ability to reach a wide range of individuals. This shift came at the perfect time for Cleveland and our team of developers. With Socrates birth and marketing research shifting to online survey methodology everything was in place to achieve Cleveland’s dream of carrying out qualitative research on large samples.

Since conducting his first one-on-one online interview in 2004, Socrates has gone on to interview over 5 million individuals. Over the years, Socrates has become fluent in six different languages (English, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Simplified Mandarin Chinese) and has the ability to learn new material and language for specific interviewing needs. Recently Socrates gained the ability to conduct interviews on mobile devices and custom applications.

Developing and advancing Socrates over the past years has been a very rewarding experience and I am proud of the work my team and colleagues have accomplished. We have a dedicated and talented team of researchers and developers at Quester and I am honored to be part of such an innovative company. Socrates will continue to evolve and grow just like an actual person. I am excited to be a part of that process and look forward to seeing Socrates “grow up”.


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