Park Your Demographics at the End
In a typical graduate-level research course on survey methods, students are taught to ask demographic questions about race, ethnicity, age, gender, income, etc. at the end of a survey. The questions are typically off-topic, and they sometimes scare away respondents who feel such questions are intrusive.
But with most surveys now fielded through online survey panels and with researchers trying to reach increasingly narrow targets, putting demographic questions at the beginning of surveys is common. Often we have strict demographic quotas and screening criteria, so demographics need to be assessed immediately to decide whether potential respondents qualify for inclusion in a survey.
To clarify current industry thinking on this issue, Fran Featherston, a colleague who just a few months ago retired from the National Science Foundation, asked a large group of AAPOR (American Association for Public Opinion Research) members to share their current practices and opinions. Here is a summary of their viewpoints, adapted from Fran’s post to the group:
- Most researchers put demographic items at the end since they are off-topic, less interesting, less substantive, and potentially sensitive
- Some researchers put the most important demographic items at the beginning (and less important ones at the end) to have at least some understanding of those who are not completing the survey
- Some put the most important demographic items in the middle (especially if a survey is very long)—a hybrid approach of the two strategies above
- For some populations (such as students, who are used to taking tests and who like answering easy questions) putting all demographic items at the beginning seems to engage respondents and sustain participation because the questions are quick and easy
Fran noted that no one seems to know of any experimental research on this.
Given our usual need for online targeting and rigorous screening, the approach at Versta Research falls somewhere between the first and second approaches. We always begin our design with demographics at the end. We move them to the beginning only if targeting and screening require it. Our advice to clients is that unless you absolutely need to know the answer to a boring or sensitive question upfront, wait and ask it at the end instead.
—Joe Hopper, Ph.D.