3 Things to Consider When Asking Sensitive Survey Questions

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3 Things to Consider When Asking Sensitive Survey Questions

Today, it is very important to consider a respondent’s potential reaction to certain topics, as well as the wording of questions and responses. There is heightened sensitivity in this area.

— Jun Uematsu, dataSpring Director in Japan

Jun also sees a trend with consumers being more reactive and outspoken. These factors make it imperative for researchers and consultants to seriously consider the potential controversy that survey language and certain topics can have, and its impact on data quality.

The rise of online and mobile research has forced respondents and consultants to update their thinking on questionnaire design. Many of the best practices established for 'offline' methods regarding questionnaire wording, instructions, and survey length, do not work as effectively with online methods.

Who would’ve imagined that a simple demographic question could cause controversy? And yet, questions about gender and marital status can spark issues. 'Asking sensitive survey questions' traditionally meant delving into topics that were considered highly personal – health, personal care habits, income, investments, etc. - but it has become increasingly important to consider other factors. This is especially important in global studies that span multiple regions, where cultural sensitivities can differ dramatically.

These considerations fall into three broad categories: Personal, Cultural, and Political.

1. Personal

As mentioned, sensitive questions of a personal nature (health, personal care, income) can be dealt with any number of ways. As pointed out in our past post, Privacy Issues in Mobile Market Research, when it comes to motivating respondents to provide details around health issues, it is important to stress the confidentiality and privacy of the information throughout the market research survey. Often researchers simply assume panelists know their data will be kept private, but reassurance will help respondents feel comfortable providing honest and candid answers. This is especially true in countries where the practice of market research is less established, like China and the Middle East.

Personal care is another area where sensitivity to the topic varies greatly by region. In Asia, being forthcoming about grooming and hygiene habits is less common than in the West, where the media and advertisements have made the population less sensitive about the topic. In global studies, this is important to consider and can have an impact on response rate. It is good practice to have the questionnaire localized by the sample provider or research supplier to avoid offending respondents.


2. Cultural

Cultural sensitivity is very important to consider in global research. Certain topics which would not be problematic in some countries may be considered offensive to even ask about in others. For example, in majority-Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, adding questions about alcohol consumption could be considered highly insensitive. The same issues arise for inquiries about religion or religious practices, and so must be avoided.

Less sensitive, but also important to consider are demographics. In today’s world, it is important to consider a wider variety of response choices. As mentioned, even questions around gender should be thought through. Most often including 'other' or 'chose not to respond' can eliminate issues, however, this may have an impact on analysis. It is important to work with a quality sample firm to develop a sample and analysis plan to ensure there is an adequate sample to analyze.


3. Political

In a number of Asian countries, politics or topics related to the government can only be conducted by certain firms. Even if a survey is not dealing with politics and government directly, it is good practice to review the wording for anything that could be considered political. This is especially true in segmentation and attitude batteries where respondents are asked to agree or disagree with certain statements. Often included in these batteries are statements about the future ('I think the economy will grow' or 'I like to voice my opinion') which could be considered a commentary on government. Avoid anything that could be considered political.

In Conclusion

As more research is conducted globally, and new markets like China are introduced to the practice of market research, it is important to consider the effect of certain questions, responses and topics may have on respondents. Working with an experienced sample provider and supplier like dataSpring can help identify potential issues before they arise. Research studies are designed to generate insight, not controversy, so be sure to consider the potential impacts of personal, cultural, and political topics before launching a study.

For more information on how to design your questionnaires properly, check out our market research survey essentials, or download our online survey terms basics brochure.

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