Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The Qualtrics Conundrum

Posted on | December 9, 2012 | No Comments

While tech giants Facebook and Google get most of the public’s consideration, another upcoming company called Qualtrics deserves a slice of our attention. This company has developed an online platform for research that makes it much easier to conceptualize, construct, distribute, analyze and visualize projects. Qualtrics is moving quickly ahead of competitors Intellisurvey and SurveyMonkey and is having a dramatic and disruptive effect on the commercial and academic state of gathering “unstructured” external data for various types of research.

Qualtrics was founded in 2002 in Utah by the Smith family, who have already rejected one $500 million dollar buyout offer for their privately held company.[1] Scott, the father, was a professor of marketing at Brig­ham Young University for 30 years. He developed his ideas for an online research platform while on an extended sick leave. When his sons Ryan (now the CEO) and Jared developed an interest, they built the company into one of the top 40 companies on Business Insider’s top 100 list of private tech companies.[2]

Their mantra, ‘Sophisticated enough for a PhD, easy enough for an intern,’ points to the trend to make research easier and quicker. This allows companies to “insource” the production of vital information on customers, employees, B2B partners and suppliers. Previously, they hired outside firms to conduct this research, which can get pricey. Now companies are enabled by Qualtrics and other survey companies that provide research and analytics software to increasingly do their research work in-house. Now nearly 5000 paying customers systematically collect “unstructured external data” using these online tools. The list includes Chevron, eBay, ESPN, FedEx, Gieco, Microsoft, Neiman Marcus, Prudential, Thomson Reuters, Royal Caribbean, and Southwest Airlines, as well as some 600 universities and a large number of state and federal agencies.

CEO Ryan Smith returned to his alma mater at BYU to give a talk on Qualtrics at the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology.

I started to develop a working familiarity with Qualtrics while I was the chair of a program at New York University offering a MS in Management and Systems. They had a strong thesis program and many students conducted empirical and highly quantitative research. Besides actually supervising thesis students I also distributed surveys for the students to the larger student body and noticed that many of the students started to adopt the Qualtrics software for their data collection.

It’s beyond my scope here to go into a lot of detail about the characteristics and workings of Qualtrics, but below is a list of some of the features it provides.

– over 100 different types of questions (i.e. multiple choice, T/F);
– a choice of Likert scales (i.e. Very Unlikely to Very Likely);
– easily embed video and audio clips;
– choose images from a computer or download from the web;
– use questions by professionals from previously designed surveys;
– make surveys quickly using templates;
– personalize surveys with a respondent’s name and other characteristic information;
– randomize the order of choices and questions;
– create a library of questions, letters, surveys, and media for future use.[4]

Although the capabilities of the Qualtrics platform are quite extraordinary, they also raise a number of issues. One concern is that the facility of Qualtrics is no guarantee for the quality of the research. Drawing questions from a theoretical base, articulating research hypoteses and identifying dependent and independent variables can take incisive minds sharpened by years of education and immersion in the area to do well. The IT mantra “Garbage In, Garbage out” is applicable here as a poorly designed research survey can produce incomplete or misleading results.

Also, the Qualtrics solution raises questions about the value of quantitative methodologies that rely on a decontextualizing process that ignores more meaningful frameworks such as business outcomes in the commercial world and social context in academia. The writings of web analytics experts such as Avinash Kaushik and John Lovett, who both have spent the last decade using these metrics produced by social media and other Internet activities confirm the dire need to separate the clicks that matter from those that don’t and also how to tie them into an organization’s objectives and purpose.

Much of this research leaves decision-makers and policy-formulators hungry for the perspectives that make this type of information more significant. The challenge of this new age of research will be the articulation and visualization of the meanings these metrics produce that address and inform higher levels of purpose and understanding.


[1] Victoria Barret wrote an extensive piece, “Qualtrics: Tech’s Hidden Gem in Utah.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 15 May 2012. Web. Accessed 06 Dec. 2012. <>.
[2] “The Next 25 Big Enterprise Startups.” Business Insider. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 08 Dec. 2012. <>.
[3] “Qualtrics Raises $70M From Accel And Sequoia: The Biggest Software Company You Haven’t Heard Of?” TechCrunch RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. Accessed 09 Dec. 2012. <>.
[4] This list was composed in part from information from “Building Surveys.” Qualtrics. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2012. .




Anthony J. Pennings, PhD recently joined the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University in Austin TX, after ten years on the faculty of New York University.


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