Posts Tagged ‘questionnaire’

Asking Sensitive Survey Questions

June 22, 2010

As marketers, sometimes we need to get information from respondents that they may not be willing to volunteer freely. When confronted with such inquiries, people may ignore the question, provide either untrue or incomplete responses, or even terminate the survey. Yet often, the survey often provides the only feasible means of obtaining information about a respondent’s religious affiliation, race, income, or other sensitive information. What’s a marketer to do? There are several ways around it:

Build Rapport with Respondent

Quite often, it is best to start a survey with neutral questions, and let the respondent work his or her way through the survey, letting each question lead up to the information you need to ask about. Placing controversial questions late in the questionnaire has two benefits. First, if the respondent chooses to stop the survey once he or she reaches the sensitive questions, you still have the respondent’s answers to all questions beforehand, which you can use for other analyses. Secondly, as the respondent works through the easy, unthreatening questions, he or she may feel as though trust is being established, and will be more likely to answer the question asking the sensitive information.

Be Casual About it!

Let’s assume you are trying to measure the incidence of tax cheating. Getting truthful responses can be very difficult. Try reducing the perceived importance of the topic by asking the question in a nonchalant manner: “Did you happen to have ever cheated on your taxes?” Worded this way, the question leads the respondent to believe the survey’s authors do not think that tax cheating is a big deal, so the respondent may be coaxed to answer truthfully.

Make it Sound Like “Everybody’s Doing It!”

Instead of directly asking a respondent if he or she cheats on his/her taxes, ask if they know of anyone who does. “Do you know any people who cheated on their taxes?” Then the next question could be, “How about you?” When he or she feels he/she isn’t alone, the respondent may be more inclined to be honest. Another way is to combine the casual approach with this one: “As you know, many people have been cheating on their taxes these days. Do you happen to have cheated on yours?”

Choose Longer Questions Instead of Shorter Ones

Longer questions can “soften the blow” with the excess verbiage, and reduce the threat. Consider these examples:

  1. “Even the most liberal people don’t pay their fair share of taxes to the government. Have you, yourself, not reported all your income to the government in the past two years?”
  2. “The Investors Business Daily recently reported on the widespread practice of middle class Americans to not report all their income for tax purposes. Have you happened to report less than all your income at tax time?”
  3. “Did things come up that kept you from reporting all your income to the IRS, or did you happen to report all your income?”

Note the patterns here. In the first question, we again make it sound like everyone is cheating on taxes. In the second, we appeal to an authority. In the third, we make it sound like circumstances beyond the respondent’s control made him or her unable to report all his income.

Try Some Projective Techniques

Make it sound like the respondent is just giving an estimate about someone else. Ask, “As your best guess, approximately what percentage of people in your community fail to report all their income at tax time?” When asked this way, a respondent might base the response on his or her own personal experience.

Try a Hierarchy of Sensitive Issues

Have a question that shows a list of answers ordered from least sensitive to most sensitive. A question like this:

“In the past 12 months or so, which of the following have you done? (Select all that apply):

    “Wear your shirt inside out”

     “Forget to hand in homework”

    “Lock your keys in the car while it was still running”

    “Discipline your child by spanking”

    “Take money out of your spouse’s wallet”

    “Meet an ex-girl/boyfriend behind your spouse’s back”

    “Withhold some information about your income at tax time”

    “Falsely accuse your neighbor of tax dodging”

Notice how this question moves the respondent from less threatening to very threatening answer choices. And by keeping the taxes part embedded – not the very first or the very last – the respondent sees that there are much worse behaviors than tax cheating he/she can admit to. Hence, the he/she is more likely to be truthful.


Questionnaire design is as much an art as it is a science, and wording sensitive questions is almost entirely an art. By building trust with your respondent, making him/her feel that it’s purely human to have the issue/behavior you’re trying to get the respondent to talk about, and finding soft, indirect ways to pierce the issue, you can get him or her to contribute more truthfully and calmly. As they say, “You attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar!”


Free Online Survey Tools Can Yield Costly Useless Results if not Used Carefully

June 15, 2010

Thanks to online survey tools like Zoomerang, Surveymonkey, and SurveyPirate, the ability to conduct surveys has been greatly democratized. Small businesses, non-profits, and departments within larger firms can now conduct surveys that they would never have been able to do because of cost and lack of resources. Unfortunately, the greatest drawback of these free survey tools is the same as their greatest benefit: anyone can launch a survey. Launching an effective survey requires a clear definition of the business problem at hand; a carefully thought out discussion of the information needed to address the business problem, the audience of the survey, and how to reach it; determination of the sample size and how to select them; designing, testing, and implementing the questionnaire; and analyzing the results. Free online survey tools do not change this process.

Recently, a business owner from one of my networking groups sent me an online survey that he designed with one of these free tools. It was a questionnaire about children’s toys – which was the business he was in. He wasn’t sending me the survey to look at and give advice; he sent it to me as if I were a prospective customer. Unfortunately, I’m not married and don’t have kids; and all my nieces and nephews are past the age of toys. The survey was irrelevant to me. The toy purveyor needed to think about who his likely buyers were – and he should have good knowledge, based on his past sales, of who his typical buyers are. Then he could have purchased a list of people to whom he could send the survey. Even if that meant using a mail or phone survey, which could be costly, the owner could get more meaningful results. Imagine how many other irrelevant or uninterested recipients received the business owner’s survey. Most probably didn’t respond; but others might have responded untruthfully, giving the owner bogus results.

Also, the “toy-preneur’s” survey questions were poorly designed. A double-barreled question: “Does your child like educational or action toys?” What if a respondent’s child liked both educational and action toys? The owner should have asked two separate questions: “Does your child like educational toys?” and “Does your child like action toys?” Or he could have asked a multi-part question like, “Check the box next to each of the types of toys your child likes to play with,” followed with a list of the different types of toys.

The survey gets worse… questions like: “How much does your child’s happiness mean to you?” How many people are going to answer that question negatively? Hello? Another asking the respondent to rank-order various features of a toy for which there was no prototype pictured, and if that wasn’t bad enough, there were at least 9 items to rank? Most people can’t rank more than five items, especially not for an object they cannot visualize.

We also don’t know how the toy manufacturer selected his sample. My guess was that he sent it to everyone whose business card he collected. Hence, most of the people he was surveying were the wrong people. In addition to getting unacceptable results, another danger of these online survey tools is that people are more frequently bombarded with surveys that they stop participating in surveys altogether. Imagine if you were to receive five or more of these surveys in less than two weeks. How much time are you willing to give to answering these surveys? Then when a truly legitimate survey comes up, how likely are you to participate?

I think it’s great that most companies now have the ability to conduct surveys on the cheap. However, the savings can be greatly offset by the uselessness of the results if the survey is designed poorly or sent to the wrong sample. There is nothing wrong with reading up on how to do a survey and then executing it, as described, as long as the problem is well-defined, the relevant population is identified, and the sampling, execution, and analysis plans are in place. “Free” surveying isn’t good if it costs you money and time in rework and/or in faulty actions taken based on your findings.

Do you have trouble deciding whether you need to do a survey? Do you spend a lot of time trying to find out what you’re trying to learn from a survey? Or how many people to survey? Or the questions you need to ask? Or which people to survey? Let Analysights help. We have nearly 20 years of survey research experience and a strong background in data analysis. We can help you determine whether a survey is the best approach for your research needs, the best questions to ask to get the information you need, and help you understand what the findings mean. Feel free to call us at (847) 895-2565.