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Beyond the Rating Scale: Leveraging MaxDiff in Online Surveys


You can’t include everything and the kitchen sink in a product or service, nor would you want to. Rather, prioritization becomes the key to determining which features will be included in the final product. MaxDiff helps you accomplish this by quantifying your audience’s top priorities.

Table of contents:

What is MaxDiff?

MaxDiff, short for Maximum Difference Scaling, is a survey technique used to understand preferences among a set of items. Respondents are tasked with selecting their most and least preferred items within a list (usually 3-5 items). The exercise is repeated, typically around 8-15 times, using a careful combination of choices so that each item is shown an equal number of times. 

Mobile-friendly MaxDiff exercise

This method creates a robust evaluation of different items. By compelling respondents to make trade-offs, MaxDiff enables the collection of more nuanced and actionable data compared to conventional rating or ranking scales. 

How is MaxDiff Different From Regular Ranking/Rating Questions? 

MaxDiff represents a comparative ranking approach that compels respondents to assess and select options based on their individual preferences. Unlike traditional rating questions that tell you which features a customer values (possibly all of them), a MaxDiff uses tradeoffs to identify how much more preferred a given feature is compared to the others.

So instead of this result, where all items were rated equally important...

Rating question results where all items were rated very important get this - a MaxDiff score that shows not only preference but also how much more an item is preferred compared to the others.

MaxDiff analysis of a survey question

What is MaxDiff Used For?

MaxDiff helps you understand people’s priorities, which is essential in a variety of scenarios. 

Product or feature prioritization

By gauging customer priorities, companies can channel resources toward features that deliver the most value, enhancing product appeal and competitiveness. 

Brand positioning 

MaxDiff can assess the significance of various brand attributes (e.g., reliability, affordability, eco-friendliness) within an organization’s target market, highlighting potential differentiators or areas needing improvement. 

Market segmentation

Identifying preferences and priorities across different demographic or psychographic segments allows marketers to tailor products, services, and messaging more effectively to each group. 

Employee satisfaction and engagement

Organizations can use MaxDiff to understand what factors (e.g., work-life balance, compensation, benefits) contribute most and least to employee satisfaction. This information can help HR and leadership prioritize initiatives that will positively impact their workforce. 

Product development

In the early stages of product development, MaxDiff can help companies identify which product concepts, designs, or potential features appeal most to their target customers. By focusing on the most preferred attributes, a company can increase its likelihood of success. 

How Are MaxDiff Scores Calculated

Advanced algorithms, such as hierarchical Bayes, underpin MaxDiff score calculations. For IntelliSurvey clients, the IS Pro interface seamlessly integrates the Hierarchical Bayes Markov Chain Monte Carlo methodology, eliminating the need for a separate platform or service to calculate it for you. 

MaxDiff Best Practices

Listed below are some best practices to follow when conducting a MaxDiff study.

Provide clear and concise instructions

Clearly explain the MaxDiff exercise to respondents, including the purpose and how to complete it. Use simple language and, if necessary, provide examples to ensure they understand they are selecting the most and least preferred item, not ranking or rating them. 

Carefully select your items 

Choose a set of items (features, attributes, options, etc.) that are most relevant to your research objectives. Items should be distinct and mutually exclusive to avoid confusion for respondents. 

Keep the number of items to a minimum

Limit the number of items to a reasonable total to avoid respondent fatigue. A typical range is between 10 and 40 items. 

Create a balanced design

Ensure each item appears an equal number of times in both the most preferred and the least preferred positions across the entire set of tasks. Too few options may limit the granularity of results, while too many choices can overwhelm respondents. Typically, each set should contain 4-8 items to remain manageable for survey participants while still providing enough data for analysis.  

Use randomization 

Randomize the order of items within each MaxDiff task to mitigate order effects and response biases. 

Include a sufficient number of tasks

A common rule of thumb is to include at least 8-12 tasks per respondent, although the optimal number may vary depending on the complexity of the items and the sample size.

Consider context

Provide background information on the items being evaluated as necessary, especially if they are complex or unfamiliar to the audience. This can help ensure respondents have the relevant information to make informed choices.

Create a mobile-friendly design

Mobile optimization ensures the exercise is easy to navigate, read, and interact with on a smaller screen. This is crucial for data quality - for example, if a MaxDiff is too wide for a mobile device, you may get more random responses because not all respondents will scroll sideways to see the full information/selection options. IntelliSurvey MaxDiffs are mobile-friendly by default for this exact reason.

The IntelliSurvey Difference

MaxDiff is a powerful tool for distilling complex preferences into actionable insights. By forcing respondents to make tough choices, it reveals the relative importance of options in a manner traditional rating scales simply can’t match. 

Whether refining your product, delineating market segments, or deciphering customer priorities at a granular level, IntelliSurvey is ready to assist in your endeavors. Our thoughtful programmers meticulously craft the right MaxDiff design for top-notch results, and our platform automatically scores the MaxDiff so you can spend more time extracting insights. For more information on how IntelliSurvey can elevate your next study, please get in touch.  

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