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Is My Survey Too Long? (and 3 More Popular Questions)

Is My Survey Too Long? (and 3 more popular questions)

Among the most frequent questions I’ve been asked over the past 20 years are:

  • What is the optimal number of items to put on a survey?
  • How do I improve my response rate?
  • How do we deal with “survey fatigue”?
  • Are we asking the “right” questions?

If I only had time to give one answer to all these questions it would be this: treat your survey like you would treat a first date. Really.

If you were going out on a first date with someone, wouldn’t you want the conversation to flow from topic to topic, asking questions and showing interest in your date, and not monopolizing the conversation or asking personal details too quickly?

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Contrast that approach with how with how most surveys are worded. Consider these poor practices – true for both a first date conversation and for a survey:

1. Monopolize the conversation and pepper your date with questions because, hey, this might be the last time you see each other.

That is how many surveys are written: as if it is the last opportunity you will ever get to talk to your customers, members or employees. Instead focus your survey on one or two topics and save other topics for the NEXT survey. Having a “next survey” helps avoid the situation where each department wants their questions asked now, making the survey unbearably long.

The survey should be a conversation where you ask a couple of questions and the respondent answers and then you close the loop by later explaining to the respondent how their feedback was used to make improvements. Follow this rule and you will have the opportunity for a second date and can ask more questions.

2. Wait until the end of the night to ask your date a series of personal questions.

How often have we seen questions on gender, race, age, job title and salary income, no matter how irrelevant to the purpose of the survey. Worse, these questions are usually found at the end of the survey (“so as not to skew the results” they say). At that point the respondent often wonders if her responses are now going to be interpreted in light of knowing she is a female Hispanic in a decision-making capacity earning $75,000-$99,999. If not able to opt-out of the demographic questions, many respondents simply end the date right there by closing their browser.

We wouldn’t do that on a first date, right? – wait until the date has ended then blurt out “oh by the way, how old are you and how much money do you make and where do you work?” Don’t be creepy on your date or your surveys.

3. Ask your date a long series of questions, not allowing your date to clarify answers.

That is what surveys often do. You may have wanted to rate the service somewhere between 4 and 5 stars but there is no option for this nor any comment boxes so you can better explain your thoughts. Do not just ask multiple choice and Yes/No questions like it is an interrogation. Give your date (respondent) the opportunity to talk and tell you more!

4. Make your date uncomfortable by asking irrelevant or confusing questions

Do not exasperate your date. If you should already know the answers to “what is your gender” or “degree earned,” do not ask this on your survey – your date will know that you are not listening. Do not use complex branching in your surveys when a more straightforward approach will do. Do not ask survey questions that have nothing to do with the conversation topic or you will drive your date away.

Treating your customer like a first date with your survey helps fix so many errors. Doing so would nearly always eliminate the problems described above – survey fatigue, low response rates, and asking the right questions.

Takeaway: Do not scare off your date! If you were verbalizing these questions to the respondent in person, do you think your “date” would lose interest before the end? Focus on clear topics, of appropriate length, and allow the respondent to express opinions with plenty of comment boxes. As always, share the great practices used by you and your organization in the comment box below!     /Doc

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