While I was away in Estonia, SIFO (a Swedish polling / market research firm) sent me their Sverige Nu 2010 questionnaire (Sweden Now 2010). A few days ago I finally finished filling it in.

Filling in the questionnaire took a while – the questionnaire is 40 pages, all of them packed with checkboxes. There are so many boxes it becomes physically tiring to check them. Not all of the boxes need to be checked, of course, but I counted 87 checks on the center spread, which is reasonably representative of the whole thing.

I like questionnaires. I like seeing what kind of questions they ask. What is important to these people? What do they care about? And I like answering them, because I think in many respects my answers are different from the average respondent’s. I feel like I provide some balance and perspective to their data.

In this case, the focus of the questionnaire was on two things: what do I consume (and what could I be induced to consume), and what does my media consumption look like. On the whole, I got a distinct impression that this data will primarily be used by all kinds of firms to plan their advertising strategies.

How much do I earn? How much do I spend on clothes? Which hobbies do I have? What capital goods do I have in my household?

The categories for my spending were a bit odd: very detailed in some cases and yet not comprehensive. But when seen from an advertising angle, the questions all started to make more sense.

(First they ask me how much I spend on women’s clothing. Then two rows further down they ask specifically about underwear. Or, to take another example, there are separate categories for each of wine, spirits, and beer, and a category for weight loss products – but none for food, or household products.)

Which newspapers and magazines do I read? How often do I watch TV? Which channels? Which programmes? Which time of the day? Which Internet sites do I visit? (Some of this was spectacularly boring to answer. I watch no TV, I read a single Swedish newspaper and a single Swedish magazine, and visit almost no Swedish web sites. Swedish ones were the only ones they cared about, and a few large sites like Google and Facebook. Swedish companies aren’t going to advertise in the Economist or on NYTimes.com after all.

There were also some questions specifically about my opinions about advertising – what are my views on ads on TV, Internet, radio; do I open unaddressed mail, etc.

The other interesting thing about this questionnaire (apart from its unstated and yet clear focus on advertising) was its unevenness.

Some questions are very broadly applicable and SIFO will likely be selling those data to many of their customers. Other questions appear to be included by request of some specific company. (“How often do you visit Casino Cosmopol?”)

The questions appear to be designed by different people, with no one person responsible for co-ordinating the entire thing. Many questions have a scale of responses: how often do I do something, or how much do I spend on something. The questions will naturally have somewhat different scales – some things you do frequently, others less so. But the scales sometimes differed in detail when the overall range was similar. E.g. one question might have the alternatives “never, a few times per year, a few times per quarter, a few times per month, every other week, every week, daily / almost daily”, whereas another would have “never, a few times per year, a few times per quarter, a few times per month, 1-2 times per week, 3 times per week or more”, and a third would have the same as the second but add even more detail at the end. A few more hours of work would have made the whole questionnaire easier to use. At least they had a clear layout guideline – the smaller amounts always came first.

Some questions had noticeably badly designed response ranges. “How many times have you used the following sections of the Yellow Pages during the last 12 months? None, 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, 9-11, 12-14, 15-19, 20-29, 30-49, 50+”. Who could possibly recall if they opened the Yellow Pages 6 times or 9 times in the past year? It’s going to be pure guesswork, and not very reliable data.