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Decisions About Placement

One of the most difficult tasks facing the survey designer involves the ordering of questions. Which topics should be introduced early in the survey, and which later? If you leave your most important questions until the end, you may find that your respondents are too tired to give them the kind of attention you would like. If you introduce them too early, they may not yet be ready to address the topic, especially if it is a difficult or disturbing one. There are no easy answers to these problems - you have to use your judgment. Whenever you think about question placement, consider the following questions:

  • Is the answer influenced by prior questions?
  • Does question come too early or too late to arouse interest?
  • Does the question receive sufficient attention?

The Opening Questions

Just as in other aspects of life, first impressions are important in survey work. The first few questions you ask will determine the tone for the survey, and can help put your respondent at ease. With that in mind, the opening few questions should, in general, be easy to answer. You might start with some simple descriptive questions that will get the respondent rolling. You should never begin your survey with sensitive or threatening questions.

Sensitive Questions

In much of our social research, we have to ask respondents about difficult or uncomfortable subjects. Before asking such questions, you should attempt to develop some trust or rapport with the respondent. Often, preceding the sensitive questions with some easier warm-up ones will help. But, you have to make sure that the sensitive material does not come up abruptly or appear unconnected with the rest of the survey. It is often helpful to have a transition sentence between sections of your instrument to give the respondent some idea of the kinds of questions that are coming. For instance, you might lead into a section on personal material with the transition:

In this next section of the survey, we'd like to ask you about your personal relationships. Remember, we do not want you to answer any questions if you are uncomfortable doing so.

A Checklist of Considerations

There are lots of conventions or rules-of-thumb in the survey design business. Here's a checklist of some of the most important items. You can use this checklist to review your instrument:

start with easy, nonthreatening questions
put more difficult, threatening questions near end
never start a mail survey with an open-ended question
for historical demographics, follow chronological order
ask about one topic at a time
when switching topics, use a transition
reduce response set (the tendency of respondent to just keep checking the same response)
for filter or contingency questions, make a flowchart

The Golden Rule

You are imposing in the life of your respondent. You are asking for their time, their attention, their trust, and often, for personal information. Therefore, you should always keep in mind the "golden rule" of survey research (and, I hope, for the rest of your life as well!):

Do unto your respondents as you would have them do unto you!

To put this in more practical terms, you should keep the following in mind:

  • Thank the respondent at the beginning for allowing you to conduct your study
  • Keep your survey as short as possible -- only include what is absolutely necessary
  • Be sensitive to the needs of the respondent
  • Be alert for any sign that the respondent is uncomfortable
  • Thank the respondent at the end for participating
  • Assure the respondent that you will send a copy of the final results

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