The Perfect Survey Length: Why Less is More

Buy less, own fewer, live smaller – between community car sharing programs, urban bike rental outposts, and the rise of the microhome, minimalism is trending.

And honestly, I think it’s great.

The hyper-consumerism of the ’80s and ’90s is a dying ideal, replaced by the desire to access higher quality, less disposable goods. We’ve become more conscious, and as a result, values have shifted considerably.

Believe it or not, this ties in with survey design.

If you are a regular reader of our articles, you may already be familiar with survey fatigue (it gets mentioned a fair amount). The concept of survey fatigue is, in its simplest form, the various negative effects on a respondent if they are surveyed too often, or if the surveys themselves are poorly designed (lengthiness being a common symptom).

The Rise of Big Data in Marketing

As market research (and marketing as a whole) has turned its eye away from small-room focus groups to larger data sets, surveys have become paramount. The number of companies reaching out to large samples of their customers for survey-based feedback (the ubiquitous NPS for example) has increased exponentially, many doing so before seeking any formal guidance.

Unfortunately, one of the most well-documented mistakes made by marketers, students, researchers, and small business-owners alike, is thinking that the correlation between survey length and accuracy of data is a strictly positive one.

When it comes to survey length, less really can achieve more.

Not unlike a 140-character limitation to tweets, if you were to limit yourself to say, seven questions, you would force yourself to focus more on getting as much out of each word possible. The questions themselves would be well-thought out in accordance to the end goal (what are you trying learn?) and the format of the survey, the flow, and the logic implemented in the survey may work to shorten individual respondent’s time spent answering questions.

Through the past few generations, advertisements have adapted. When radio ads were first introduced, there was novelty to the idea. The quality ads were celebrated, just as they are now.

However, over time, the novelty wore off and people began to ignore them.

No matter the medium, with time, people will learn to tune them out. We’re at a point where the average person is able to scan website content and visually disregard any banner ads running up and down the left and right columns. Perhaps in a sort of natural evolution, native ads have gained traction as the next attempt to trick the consumer into paying attention.

Tread Lightly

Consider the same adapt-ignore-adapt effect we have with ads, but with surveys. And not just based on the volume of instances, but combine it with the multiplier of length.

The longer the survey and the more often you are asked to fill out long surveys, the less likely you are to participate. And for those that do, the less likely they are to provide unbiased feedback.

In short, it can be really hard to get any sort of constructive or positive feedback from a demographic of annoyed respondents frustrated that their dry cleaner sent them a customer satisfaction survey.

If I scroll through my “Promotional” folder in Gmail, I quickly see feedback requests from a clothing company, an e-retailer (two requests actually), a social networking site, a dentist office, a grocery store chain, and a garden supply store. You can see how quickly (based on the tools that already exist to weed through these messages) we have learned to tune these out.

So what can we do to avoid surveys becoming an annoyance people are keen to avoid? Simply prioritizing the user’s experience to keep surveys as pain free and short as possible will go a long way in reducing fatigue.

Complete Guide to Great Survey Design

Insider tips and tricks for designing great surveys that produce actionable data.

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How To Keep It Short

Show/Hide Logic
This is a great way to make your survey appear as short as possible, which is a key factor in obtaining more responses. The following question types can be used to ‘trigger’ a follow-up question to appear using Show/Hide triggers:

  • Multiple Choice
  • Checkboxes
  • Dropdown Menu
  • Likert Scale
  • Multiple Choice Table
  • Table of Checkboxes

After creating at least one question of the above types on the page as the ‘trigger’ and then a follow-up question/text as the ‘target’ that will be shown upon the respondent clicking on a specific answer in the ‘trigger’ question, you are ready to apply the rules.

Show/When Logic
Show/When logic can be used to conditionally display a question or a page based on the answers to previous questions.
Use Show/When logic when the “target question,” the question you want to conditionally display, is on a subsequent page from the trigger questions. You can also use Show/When logic to conditionally display entire pages within your survey.

Question Piping – Using the reporting value or title of selected answers from a previous question to repeat a question on a later page for each answer selected.

Option Piping – Using option piping you can use the reporting value(s) or titles of selected answer(s) from a previous question as the answer options in a question on a later page.

Test Your Surveys for UX

Testing your survey for dysfunction before sending is a commonly followed best practice in online surveying. However, testing it for usability is often overlooked. When you create a survey, consider the purpose of each question and whether or not it directly achieves the data collection goals you outlined before starting. Then, when you’ve designed and built the survey, test it for usability. If you’re only halfway through the survey and already tired of clicking radio buttons, chances are your respondents won’t even make it that far.

Consider the loyalty of the respondents as well. If you’re looking for feedback from someone who visited your restaurant once, as opposed to someone who is there each week, you’re far less likely to get thoughtful, time-intensive responses.

Here’s what it boils down to – in order to avoid the externality of surveys becoming the next mutable, fast-forwarded television commercial, do the responsible thing and,

A) Avoid high frequency; soliciting the same sample of people each week won’t get you the actionable data you’re looking for. It may, instead, lose you customers.
B) Keep your surveys short; use the logic tools available and remember the golden rule – if you don’t want to take it, neither will they.

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