Reasons to Avoid an Other-Specify Box
If you are a smart person and you only occasionally try your hand at writing a survey, here is something you may find yourself doing: adding an open box at the end of every question so that respondents can “write in” their own answer if the pre-listed answers do not fit them. Our clients do this—and ask us to do it—all the time. They are worried (rightly so) that we might miss something, and so we ought to let respondents tell us what we missed.
That open box you are tempted to include at the end of every question is called an “other-specify.” But there is a big downside to them. They make data harder to work with, they add ambiguity, and they do not work very well.
Every question with an other-specify will require manual review. You need to read what people wrote, and then decide what to do. Often they write answers similar to what you already supplied. Will you assume the respondent was lazy, and change their answer to the one you supplied? Or will you assume they meant something different? If their answers seem different and you did miss something, will you code them into categories and report new answer options? If you do, the percentages will be quite small and probably not be worth reporting. And then these low percentages may be misleading because they represent “unaided” responses versus the others which are aided.
But here’s the biggest reason to avoid other-specify boxes, if you can. Respondents will not use them. As much as we want them to help us, few will tell us what we missed. They assume it is our job to supply a comprehensive list of answer options (they’re right), and will answer as best they can within the constraints we offer.
Here’s our suggestion instead. Invest in qualitative research (or a good pre-test) before you design your survey so that you are confident nothing important is missed. Don’t ask (or expect) respondents to cover this base for you. They won’t. They will just leave you with annoying clean-up work (that you will have to do) and it will make almost no difference to the outcome of your survey.
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