How to ask demographic questions
3/13/14 / Matt Bruce
Asking demographic questions (e.g., age, gender, marital status) should be the easiest of survey questions to ask, right? What if I told you asking someone how old they are will yield different results than asking in what year they were born, or that asking a sensitive question (e.g., How much money did you make last year?) in the wrong way or at the wrong time may cause a respondent to abandon the survey?
Considering today’s identity security concerns, socially desirable bias, and dipping response rates, asking demographic questions is full of potential pitfalls. Although gathering it might be tricky, demographic data are often critical to revealing key insights. In this post, we present three tips on how best to ask demographic questions on a survey.
- When to ask demographic questions: Our general rule-of-thumb is to ask demographic questions at the end of a survey, when survey fatigue is less likely to influence answers. Respondents are more likely to answer demographic questions honestly, and will have a better survey taking experiences, if they have already viewed the other questions in the survey. However, we sometimes find it is best to ask a few easy demographic questions at the beginning, so survey-takers start to feel comfortable and see that their feedback will be useful. For example, when researching a specific place (like a city or county), I like asking participants how long they have lived in this place as the first question on the survey.
- How you ask the question will determine the type of data you will collect: It is important to consider how demographic data will be used in analysis before finalizing a survey instrument; not doing so might make it difficult to answer the study’s research questions. One consideration is whether to collect specific numbers (e.g., Please enter the number of years you lived in your current home) or provide a range of values and ask participants to indicate which range best described them (e.g., Have you lived in your current home for less than 1 year, 1-2 years, 3-5 years, etc)? This decision depends on several factors, the primary factor being how the data will be used in analysis. Collecting specific numbers (i.e., continuous data) typically allows for more advanced analyses than responses within a range of numbers (i.e., categorical data), but these advanced analyses may not be needed, or even suitable, to answer your research questions. The sensitivity level inherent in the question is also a factor; for example, survey-takers are more likely to indicate that they are within a range of income levels than they are to provide their exact income. In our experience, the benefit of collecting contentious income data is not worth the cost of causing participants to skip the income question.
- Information needed to ensure the results represent the population: It is common for certain groups of people to be more likely to respond to a survey than other groups. To correct for this, we often calculate and apply weights so that the data more closely resemble the actual study population. If you plan to collect demographic data in order to weigh your results, then you will want to match survey question categories with the categories in the data you will use for weighing. For example, if you would like to weigh using data from the U.S. Census, then you will want to use the same ranges that are available at the geographic extent of your analysis. Keep in mind that some demographic variable are lumped into smaller categories for larger geographic areas (e.g., states) and into larger categories for smaller geographies (e.g., census tracts). All of these factors must be considered before collecting data from the population.
Haphazard demographic questions can decrease, rather than increase, the value of a survey. At Corona, we always carefully consider research goals, potential analyses, and the population when we design survey questions. Designing a survey might not be as easy as it appears, and we have many more tips and insights than what we could share here. If you would like guidance on how best to ask demographic questions on your survey, contact us. We promise that asking us for guidance is easier than asking demographic questions.