Sheila here, writing again with my survey design bestie Kim Leonard and today we want to talk about respect. Respect gets little respect in most survey design textbooks, but we talk about it in over a dozen places in Designing Quality Survey Questions

People are surveyed all the time these days. Survey fatigue is real and can get in the way of a successful survey that has a good response rate and that yields meaningful, actionable data. Surveys can and should be better experiences for everyone – less harmful, more inclusive, and honoring of respondents’ time, energy and expertise – more human-centered, even. Here are just a handful of the ways to make surveys more respectful:

1. Tell respondents why you are conducting this survey.

Share the purpose of the survey, and even the purpose of the larger research or evaluation study and ensure respondents can relate to that purpose. It can also be helpful to let respondents know why you are asking certain questions, especially those that are sensitive or potentially threatening questions (including demographic questions). 

An example: Consider this excerpt from a survey invitation Sheila received after a health care visit:

“Our mission at [organization name] is to provide our patients with the highest quality health care that we can. Please consider responding to this survey to help us know what we are doing well on and what we can improve to better care for you. By sharing your thoughts and feelings about your health care experience on 11/21/2022, you can help make our care better for future patients and their families.”

So easy! Let’s do something like this in all of our survey invites!

2. Tell respondents how long they should expect to spend on your survey.

This doesn’t need to be exact and, in fact, it can’t be because different respondents will need different amounts of time. It’s OK to express a range such as 10-15 minutes. 

Hint: You should know approximately how long it may take a respondent to complete the survey from pretesting

3. Prioritize your information needs.

To keep your survey brief so that respondents don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on it, prioritize your questions and consider saving some only for respondents who consent to a longer survey. In this way, you’re showing respect for people’s time, but you’re also possibly avoiding a situation where a survey feels too long for a respondent and who quits short of the last question without submitting their responses. 

Our take: In many cases, it’s better to have some data vs no data from a particular respondent. 

Do you have 2 more minutes to provide more feedback

4. Use relevant, appropriate and inclusive language.

Make sure you know your respondents and do your homework to learn the best ways to ask potentially sensitive questions around race/ethnicity, gender, age, income, etc. for your respondent population. There’s no one right way to ask any of these questions but plenty of ways to unintentionally do harm. Avoiding the use of “other” as a response option for demographic questions is just one example of a way we can be more respectful with response options. 

Bonus: Check out Elizabeth Grim’s Words Matter project for more on non-violent and inclusive language. 

5. Share results with respondents.

Whenever possible, researchers should share  results with those who complete the survey. If your survey is anonymous, that might look like sharing information with the same email list or social media platforms, etc., that you used to solicit responses. If you know who responded, an email directly to respondents when results are available can be really meaningful. 

Note: You should be able to let folks know how you will use this information and promise to share findings (and potentially indicate when and how that will happen) when requesting responses – which can provide an incentive to respond for those who are curious or are motivated by contributing.

These are only a few of the many ways your survey design can show respect for respondents and minimize the burden on them, meant to spark your thinking. What other ways can you come up with? Please share in the comments!

🌟 Want to learn more? Kim and I are now offering our workshop Designing Quality Survey Questions as an online course, open to the public! You get a comprehensive 5-hr course and participant workbook along with two expert instructors to answer all your survey design questions. Learn more about the course and register for the next session. You’ll never look at a survey the same way!

Check out my other articles on survey design.

Interested in a talk or workshop on any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.