I would stand to argue that surveys have changed little over the past 50 years. Sure technology has made it somewhat easier and less expensive but let's take a look at a few changes in the survey as we know it.
Taking a look at some traditional survey techniques, we can start with the mall survey. The premise is that if you intercept people where they conduct a primary activity (shopping) that you'd get a valid sampling population. The basic survey mechanism involved an individual holding a clipboard to ask the unsuspecting shopper as they pass by if they would like to participate in a survey. If they said yes, the interviewer would ask a few basic screening question and if successful, conduct the interview based on a paper survey with question and logic notes. This method is slow, error prone, time consuming and expensive, though still a valid method.
Telephone polling changed the industry since the adoption of the telephone was near 100% in some areas. Using random digit dialing (RDD) a truer random sampling of individuals could be done and all you needed was a room full of phones and interviewers. Today this sector of the industry is facing many challenges due to do-not-call lists and the rise of cell phone use. Still the survey hasn't changed much. In this case the survey was still mostly the same in either paper format or CATI.
The CATI (Computer Aided Telephone Interview) system added great efficiency to the telephone interviewer. Essentially a survey would be programmed and the interviewer would read off of a computer screen. This system supported basic survey logic (conditional skips) and computerized data collection.
Welcome the Internet and the CATI or paper survey can now be formatted in HTML and presented to an individual online with checkboxes, radio buttons, text boxes - all with logic, nice formatting and drastic cost savings.
Up until this point, the major breakthrough has been in the efficiency of deploying surveys. Online technologies drove the cost of implementing a survey to near commodity levels so to reach 500 or 1,000 individuals become very cost effective.
Though my real disappointment has been that the basic survey has not changed. The paper survey used by the mall or phone interviewer really hasn't changed much when it went live on the Internet. The effect has largely been a direct translation of the paper survey to the web browser screen.
Surveys or market research in general has a fear of change. Any change in implementation creates fear and concern in validity of data. This fear has stifled innovation in methodologies and implementation. Why not challenge the boring typical linear survey? Sure there are those who are creating surveys with silly flash to flip pages or select items off of a shelf.
In my opinion the value or advantage of doing research online is being drastically under utilized. Take for example email panels. Instead of being innovative, everyone is still trying to build these massive 1,000,000+ email panels. I won't go on my feeling about panels, that's for another time.
Though there is some potential of advancement. Behavioral research is getting a fair bit of attention, and a few companies like Brain Juicer, UThink, comScore Peanut Labs and HotSpex are getting some recognition for doing innovative things.
Online research is a sector that has been growing incredibly fast and is quite healthy. Though, due to this lack of innovation there are many concerns in it's direction. Some major firms are even starting to pull away from using online research due to the rise of professional survey takers, poor methodologies, weak panels and questionable sampling techniques.
Nearly 10 years ago, we were all trying to justify online research to clients. Today just about everyone is online because it's the place to be. The next generation of research is not far around the corner. It really only takes a little innovation to lead to big changes.