Survature changing the rules of surveys

SurvatureJian Huang is a computer scientist who says simply, “I have a passion for data.”

Data visualization is, after all, where his efforts as an Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) are focused. Data is also where he has been spending his time when not teaching at UTK.

Huang has recruited a team of talented entrepreneurs to join him in his journey to redefine the expectations of the online survey industry. This is not a random objective for the Associate Professor who came to UTK in 2001 after earning his doctorate at The Ohio State University. His dream of innovating new commercial uses of big data technology began in late 2009, when he founded a company with alumni from UTK.

The company has since gone through several name changes and development initiatives. The latest pivot is renaming it as Survature Inc. and developing a new type of online survey product. This effort started in earnest in January 2013. You can find them at www.survature.com.

Survature provides an online survey tool that not only collects and analyzes survey takers’ responses, but also examines how survey takers responded. Huang explains, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”

The new company reflects the evolution that characterizes many start-ups. In the case of  Survature, Huang says it was a result of learning from past experiences.

In 2012, his team built a product called MCDigr.  The service was great, and the users loved it.  There was one problem though: they loved the free service, not the paid premium version.

“We tried to monetize the MCDigr service, but failed,” says Huang. “There was simply no market for it.” But he saw the bright side. With only a few engineers, “We built a robust and scalable system that collects and visualizes data from different sources from five continents and in real-time.”

“We can develop great products,” he concluded. But learning from experience, Huang realized that the team needed to develop not only a great product but, more importantly, one designed for a large and accessible market.

The team spent a lot of time reflecting and came up with the vision for Survature. He says the concept of Survature is simple.

“We wanted to change surveys from simply collecting answers, to collecting how the answers are provided,” Huang explained. Survature’s secret sauce is the Answercloud, a technology for which the start-up has filed a provisional patent. Survature simplifies the survey process with a better design and a new question type that has been called the Answercloud.

Huang explains that the approach reveals how the survey responder feels about an answer, not just giving a flat report of the answer. He added that  most survey analysis is done from examining the results of Likert questions, an approach that collects people’s attitudes towards a particular topic by asking the respondents to answer a series of statements against a scale of responses. Common scales are “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” “poor” to “excellent,” and “false” to “true.”

“What if, instead of answering each question in a predefined order, the respondent answers the questions in the order that he or she desires,” Huang suggested. “Respondents are likely to first answer those for which they have the strongest opinion, those that they find the easiest to answer, and those that are the most relevant to them or important due to other human behaviors. This is the essence of Answercloud.”

He explained that Answercloud places all statements in an area or “cloud,” and the scales are arranged in columns or buckets underneath the cloud of words, phrases, or statements.

“The respondents drag and drop the words or phrases, one at a time, in whatever order they select into these buckets,” he said. Survature uses the order, timing, and placement of responses as an indicator of relevance, validity, and importance to the particular respondent.

“Behavior data is rich and tells us powerful things,” Huang explains.  “If you want to fix one thing about your business right now, what is it,” he says in describing one outcome of a Survature project for a customer. Another example is, “Do your customers see their needs in the same way you do?  The traditional survey could lead you to unwarranted business decisions.”

Survature was formed in the UT Business Incubator where Huang and his team have been working aggressively to improve the product and build customer relationships.

“We have been self-financing the company, Huang said. “We are reaching a point where we need to add to the engineering team and sales force and are looking for outside funding.”

“Since we started socializing our idea and prototype, we have been getting a lot of help from the Knoxville community,” he added, likening the process to making stone soup. “As more people learn about us, more people have been willing to help us. One person brings carrots.  Another brings potatoes. It’s been an incredible experience for all of us.”

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