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Reasons to position your demographic section at the end of a survey

September 4, 2017

Demographic (or classification) questions (such as gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, income…) are asked in surveys for three main reasons:

  • To find out how many people responding to the survey fall into each of those categories;
  • To use for cross-analysis, to see whether particular groups respond to the main body of questions in different ways;
  • To make sure the right people answer the survey (i.e. to enable screener questions or quotas).

It is super-useful for us researchers if respondents are prepared to give us full and honest disclosure when it comes to demographic information.  For that reason, we do our best to capture demographic data as fully as possible.

If the demographics are being used as part of a screener question (e.g. if you only need women to answer) or if you are imposing quotas (e.g. you need exactly 15 women to answer the survey) then you are going to need to ask the demographic questions up front.

Otherwise, I would always recommend that your demographics section comes right at the very end of the survey, after all of your other questions.

This doesn’t particularly matter for analysis and methodological purposes, and indeed if you get any early drop-outs it is the demographic detail that you lose if you put it last.

However, the psychology of responding is such that putting the demographics at the end works better, because:

  • Easy questions should come first, and harder questions should come later. Warming respondents up with easy questions helps to engage them with the survey and results in fewer drop-outs as it means they are primed and committed when they get to the harder ones.  Demographic questions are not difficult in themselves as most people consider them fact (Not all!) but some people do think they are a bit personal and can feel uncomfortable answering them.  So, if you position them later in the questionnaire the respondent will already feel engaged and prepared to put the effort in to answer them.
  • Linked to this, trust is hugely important when you are asking people to tell you information that they might consider personal or uncomfortable to talk about. If you tell the respondent that the main survey is over and that you just have a few last quick questions about them, then they will have seen the full scope of your survey already and know that there is nothing unpleasant or scary about it.  Consequently, they tend to be more likely to feel comfortable disclosing their personal information.  Conversely if you ask personal questions up-front then respondents can start to worry about what is coming next, and feel concerned that their personal information is going to be linked to something that they wouldn’t be happy about.  This can make people hostile to responding and they might drop out before they’ve even begun.
  • Additionally, people can get a bit bored with a long and laborious set of demographic questions, especially if each one has a squillion response options to choose from. If you tell the respondent that the main survey is over and that you just have a few last quick questions about them, this section does seem to go a bit quicker for them as they know they are nearly done.  So again, they are more likely to engage.

Essentially, if you put the demographic section last the respondents tend to engage with it better, and better engagement with the questions means more complete data and happier respondents.

Win win.

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