Prescreen Opt-Out: The Meaning of Mandatory and the Mobile App

Published October 24, 2022

The prescreen questionnaire is among the more powerful tools in the Sona arsenal. A single questionnaire can not only allow administrators to track participant pool characteristics and demographics, but also enable comparisons with various populations (via indices, inventories, and similar standardized questionnaires), data gathering for specific research projects, and a range of other applications beyond ensuring that participants only see the studies they are eligible for.

Small wonder, then, that administrators so often make the prescreen mandatory. But it is important to understand precisely what this means, as well as what implications it has for other settings in your Sona site.

First, the prescreen is never mandatory in the strict sense of the term; that’s just shorthand for selecting No to the prescreen option Can participants choose to opt-out of the prescreen? Even if the option to opt-out is set to No, this doesn’t mean that participants must complete every item on the questionnaire in order to access their account. Indeed, questions added to the prescreen have a default option allowing participants to decline answering. This is for ethical reasons, and it is important: You can configure your system so that participants are directed to the prescreen questionnaire before they are able to access their accounts. At the same time, you can design the questionnaire so that participants may “opt-out” of (i.e., decline to answer) any particular question. You can, in a sense, have your cake and eat it too.

Second, there are a certain nuances involved in setting Can participants choose to opt-out of the prescreen? to No. These can best be understood in the context of the actual procedure the system implements given this setting. Every time a participant logs in to their account, and assuming no Participant Retake Date is set (more on this below) the system checks the following conditions:

  • Condition 1: Is the prescreen active? If no, then the participant proceeds directly to their account’s homepage. If yes, then check Condition 2.
  • Condition 2: Has the participant already completed the prescreen questionnaire? If yes, then the participant proceeds as in Condition 1 (directly to their account). If no, then check Condition 3.
  • Condition 3: Can the participant access the prescreen at the present time? If yes, then the participant is directed to the prescreen rather than to their account. If no, the participant will not be directed to the prescreen but will proceed to their account’s homepage instead.

If you have set a Participant Retake Date for your prescreen, then the only modification is to Condition 2. Basically, instead of simply checking whether or not the participant has completed the prescreen, the system will also check the date of completion. If the participant completed the prescreen after the set retake date, then they will proceed to their account. If they completed it on or before the Participant Retake Date, then the system continue to Condition 3 and check whether the participant can access the prescreen at the present time.

It may appear as if everything in this list should happen regardless of whether or not the Can participants choose to opt-out of the prescreen? option is set to No (and whether or not you have set a Participant Retake Date). But keep in mind that, for ethical reasons, once a participant opts out of the survey they will not be prompted to complete it again, even if a Participant Retake Date is set (though they will be able to complete the prescreen via a link on their My Profile page). Thus, if the opt-out setting is on, the system will not run through this checklist every time any participant logs in.

Even more subtle, however, is the “access” part of Condition 3. There is actually a system setting in place that you may think is quite separate from the opt-out setting. It usually is. This particular setting, though, becomes very relevant when the system checks Condition 3, because whether or not the participant can access the prescreen can depend crucially on this setting: Mobile Devices Allowed?

And no, we didn’t just throw in this setting in for fun. Complicated questionnaires with graphics and special formatting may be rendered differently on the Mobile App and may cause consistency issues, so we let you determine whether participants can access the prescreen via the mobile app. We want you to be able to control for this potential issue if and when it arises.

How, then, is disabling access via the mobile app related to the opt-out setting? Let’s walk through a hypothetical scenario, keeping in mind the procedure implemented by your Sona site. Suppose you have configured your system so that the prescreen can’t be accessed via the mobile app. But you want the prescreen to be mandatory, so you’ve switched off the prescreen opt-out setting. Now suppose a participant is logging in to their account via the mobile app. If the participant hasn’t completed the prescreen, then then the system will run through the checklist and wind up at Condition 3: Can the participant access the prescreen now? Well, the participant is using the mobile app, and the Mobile Devices Allowed? is set to No, so the access condition isn’t met: The participant cannot access the prescreen. Instead, the system takes the participant directly to their account’s homepage. The participant will not be directed to the prescreen until they log in through a web browser.

In short, if you don’t allow the prescreen to be accessed via the the mobile app, a participant may wind up in a study without having taken the prescreen questionnaire (even though it is “mandatory”). Along the same lines, a participant using the mobile app may be precluded from seeing a study with a prescreen restriction. Again, though, the next time the participant logs in via a browser, Condition 3 will be met and they will be directed to the prescreen.

This is why it is important to understand the procedure the system carries out when you select No for the prescreen opt-out setting. In general, it means that the system will try to take participants who haven’t completed the prescreen to the questionnaire rather than directly to their account. But for the system to do this, the participants must be able to actually access the prescreen. If your system’s settings don’t allow the participant to access your prescreen from their Mobile App, and that’s what they are using, then the system sends them to their account’s homepage. That’s one reason we’ve made Yes the default option for Mobile Devices Allowed?

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