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Master MaxDiff: Uncover your audience’s priorities in 4 easy steps

Master MaxDiff: Uncover your audience’s priorities in 4 easy steps

Giving customers, employees, and other audiences a platform to express their preferences is the magic of surveys. But what if you surveyed your audience and it turns out that they liked everything you had to offer? That’s certainly a good thing, unless your organization can’t deliver on every option they chose. In that case, you may want to understand what they value the most—and why.

That’s where MaxDiff (also known as Maximum Difference or Best-Worst Scaling) surveys can help, revealing a hierarchy of preferences by repeatedly asking respondents to choose the best and worst option. Each time certain options are chosen, a new set of options pops up based on those choices. In this way, MaxDiff analysis is a trade-off research technique used to quantify preferences. The overall results are then analyzed and given a performance score. 

This is especially useful when you have a large number of options to evaluate. For example, you can use MaxDiff questions when prioritizing the launch of new products or services and want to know what your customers need more urgently. MaxDiff surveys also highlight which compromises respondents may be willing to make when comparing options. Another powerful way to use MaxDiff surveys is to test brand and marketing messaging to identify which statements or messaging themes resonate the best and least with your target audience. 

Researcher conducting market research with MaxDiff analysis.

When it comes to understanding your target audience, MaxDiff surveys are particularly insightful because they can uncover true preferences and priorities faster than more traditional questions (e.g. Likert Scale questions). By compelling respondents to make deliberate trade-offs, you'll uncover the subtle variations in their choices, and underlying motivations for doing so. In this way, MaxDiff analysis provides a level of depth and nuance that many survey methods don’t always achieve.

Don’t believe us? Here are three huge benefits to consider: 

  1. Uncovering the motivations behind preferences: By presenting respondents with carefully curated subsets of items or attributes and forcing them to make trade-offs, MaxDiff analysis reveals the underlying motivations and decision-making processes that drive their choices.
  2. Defining priorities through audience insights: MaxDiff surveys help teams prioritize their actions based on feedback directly from their audience, providing reliable and actionable insights. This enables businesses to focus their efforts on the features, benefits, or attributes that truly resonate with their target audience, maximizing the impact of their investments.
  3. Providing statistically sound, reliable data: Unlike traditional rating scales, where respondents may be inclined to rate everything as important, MaxDiff surveys employ advanced statistical techniques to give scores or importance values for each item or attribute. This ensures that the insights derived are consistent and rooted in robust data, empowering organizations to make more informed decisions.

MaxDiff surveys and analysis can be used for a number of industries and audiences. Below are three common ways to use this methodology: customer experience (CX), human resources (HR), and marketing. 

Creating a MaxDiff survey to prioritize a new feature, service, or product is a straightforward process, especially with SurveyMonkey’s MaxDiff solution for feature importance, where SurveyMonkey creates the survey based on the items you enter.

To build a MaxDiff survey and analyze the results manually, follow the steps below. 

1. Select features for evaluation
Choose 12-25 features for your MaxDiff analysis. This range provides an optimal number of comparisons to determine the relative importance of each feature.

2. Create a survey and collect responses
To start, you can design your own study or create it with SurveyMonkey assistance. Your questions should present attributes divided into subsets, with each question offering one subset of three to five features. Using a tool like the one SurveyMonkey offers can generate subsets randomly, allowing you to obtain the most accurate, actionable data.

If you’re creating your MaxDiff analysis manually, keep in mind that the experimental design of this approach must contain:

  • Frequency balance: each attribute appears as a choice an equal number of times
  • Orthogonality: each attribute is paired with others an equal number of times
  • Position balance: each attribute appears the same number of times in each position

    Use the following formula to determine how many sets are required:
Calculation for number of times to show an attribute in a MaxDiff survey.

By following these steps and leveraging the right tools, you can effectively create a MaxDiff survey that prioritizes features based on your target audience's preferences.

3. Analyze the results

If you use a tool, it will provide you with a statistical analysis of your data. For manual analysis, you’ll need to calculate the MaxDiff.

First, create a table to record your responses. Your table should look something like this:

Total responses200
FeaturesMost importantLeast importantMagnitude
Feature 110020
Feature 24020
Feature 32060
Feature 440100

The data in this table indicates that 100 respondents said that Feature 1 is the most important feature and only 20 of 200 selected it as least important.

Next, you can calculate the relative preference magnitude of each feature to interpret how the features should be prioritized. Use this formula to calculate relative preference magnitude:

Equation to calculate relative preference magnitude for features.

Your table should now look like this:

Total responses200
FeaturesMost importantLeast importantMagnitude
Feature 1100200.4
Feature 240200.1
Feature 32060-0.2
Feature 440100-0.3

Magnitude is measured on a scale from -1 to 1. The closer the magnitude is to 1, the stronger users prefer that feature. As you can see in this example, Feature 1 would be considered the most important to respondents. Data from this calculation can be put into a graph for easy visualization.

Alternatively, you can find the utility (or value) of each feature using MaxDiff scores by subtracting the number of times an answer was chosen as least important from the number of times it was chosen as most important. Then arrange the values around a mean to determine relative value.

4. Put the findings into play

Once your analysis reveals which features your customer value the most, take your data and analysis back to stakeholders that can then make informed decisions about prioritizing your feature selections. 

Businesses today are constantly being tested by customers that can be difficult to retain, let alone maintain loyalty from. As competitors try to outperform each other on customer experience, they must gain a deeper understanding of which factors contribute to positive experiences. MaxDiff surveys provide a powerful way to uncover those critical experience drivers.

Asking questions about customer service channel preferences:

MaxDiff question for CX about customer service channel preferences.

Asking questions about most valuable aspects of customer service:

MaxDiff question for CX about customer service preferences.

Questions like these allow CX professionals to uncover customers’ support preferences so that business leaders can focus their investments on the channels, strategies, or touchpoints that are most relevant to customers. For example, a MaxDiff study using the questions above may show that most customers preferred to speak to a chatbot or AI assistant. If those who chose a chatbot or AI also cared the most about having little or no wait time, then a correlation could be made, and the company could decide to invest in more technology, rather than more live representatives–if that was the preference of most of its customers.

Retaining skilled and high-performing employees has become increasingly difficult for many HR professionals. Companies often struggle to provide attractive compensation packages, growth opportunities, and a positive work culture to keep their best talent from leaving. On top of it all, business priorities and strategies are constantly evolving, requiring HR pros to adapt quickly and align their initiatives with the organization's shifting needs. This includes revising policies, implementing new programs, and realigning talent management strategies.

Chart with different responses for the statement "I am satisfied with my healthcare coverage," with a box reading Age: 26 and under

It’s a juggling act, but HR pros can use MaxDiff surveys to navigate employees' preferences, priorities, and overall perceptions, gaining insights into what truly matters to their workforce.

Asking questions about workplace benefits:

MaxDiff question for HR about employee benefits.

Asking questions about workplace amenities:

MaxDiff question for HR about employee amenities.

Using the example MaxDiff questions above, HR professionals can discover the most valued benefits of their employees from the resulting comparison data. If, for example, the results showed that employees valued mental health resources and remote or hybrid work models, it could imply that work-life balance is a challenge for employees. 

For question two, if the results showed that a majority of employees chose on-site amenities, it could further support this work-life balance theory, giving HR professionals further ideas for how to address the work-life challenges faced by those working for the company.

With constantly evolving customer behaviors, preferences, and expectations, it's challenging for marketers to truly understand what their target audience values, let alone communicate those values to them. Without customer insights, marketers run the risk of launching ineffective campaigns and missing opportunities. One way to solve for this is by using MaxDiff to test messages with a target audience prior to launching a campaign or strategy. 

With MaxDiff surveys, markers gain valuable insights into customer preferences, prioritize their marketing efforts, and allocate resources more effectively. Additionally, this method can be combined with other market research techniques, such as focus groups, surveys, and analytics, to provide a comprehensive understanding of customer needs and market trends.

Example MaxDiff question for marketing to understand brand preferences.

How customers or prospects rank the above set of brand attributes can determine many different marketing strategies. For example, the ranking of "brand reputation" above other options reveals that customers place a lot of value on a brand's image and perception. If it’s consistently chosen as a top priority, marketers may need to focus on building and maintaining a strong, positive brand reputation through consistent messaging, transparency, and addressing any negative perceptions.

Man with glasses smiling, image of pie charts and graphs in the background

As you can see, MaxDiff surveys can be applied in a variety of industries and contexts. By leveraging the insights gained from MaxDiff analysis, organizations can prioritize their efforts, allocate resources more effectively, and make data-driven decisions that align with their audience's true preferences.

To get started with your own MaxDiff study, create an account with us and leverage our Audience panel to tap into the wisdom and preferences of the audiences you’d like to target. With responses available in as little as an hour, you can quickly gather valuable insights without any prior experience. The SurveyMonkey platform is intuitive and easy to use, allowing you to test several messages, features, or attributes at once.

Start a MaxDiff survey today to gain powerful, preference-based insights.