Getting Personal: Surveys Containing Sensitive Topics

The growth of online and mobile market research has provided researchers the ability to swiftly collect academic and public opinions; even regarding sensitive topics like illegal activity, such as drug use, or personal care habits. Gathering sensitive data can prove to be meaningful for various reasons, but moreover, it can help to inform the public and policymakers.

Sensitive questions customarily mean examining topics that are considered highly personal; health, sexual orientation, income, investments, etc. Prior to drafting a questionnaire that delves into sensitive inquiries, it is important to consider the best approaches.

 

Ensure Anonymity

Transparency is crucial when designing a survey that includes sensitive topics. At the start of the survey, it is advisable to inform participants that their data is, and will stay completely anonymous and confidential. The goal is to make your survey takers as comfortable as possible when divulging sensitive information about themselves. With that in mind, it would also be beneficial to later remind the respondents of these assurances before introducing sensitive questions.

Furthermore, researchers can choose to explicitly state that no one outside of the research team will ever be able to match respondents’ identities to their answers. In regard to demographic questions, it would be helpful to convey that the questions are asked for analysis purposes only. Providing reassurance is a tactic that researchers should embrace as it will develop a rapport with the respondents and make them feel more at ease when answering sensitive survey questions.

 

Avoid Social Desirability Biases

It is important to be aware of phrasing when asking personal questions in your survey. As a researcher, it is necessary to design a survey that invites respondents to reveal their true attitudes. Questions should be reworded or introduced in a way that makes an opposing answer look more acceptable to avoid social desirability biases.

Social desirability bias is a trend where the respondent will give their answers based on what they believe is most socially acceptable or favorable. A good way to combat this outcome is to word your questions in a way that makes any answer provided by the respondent appear socially acceptable. For example, if you’re asking a participant about their exercise routines you can phrase the question in the following way;

“When asking about exercise regimen, we’ve found that people often aren’t able to exercise more than twice a week. How many times do you exercise per week?”

Formatting a question this way will encourage respondents that exercise only two times a week or less to answer honestly and not feel ashamed for admitting it.

 

Proper Survey Structure

The proper placement of sensitive questions is fundamental when designing an effective questionnaire. When respondents begin a survey, they are not drawn into the process yet or committed to finishing it. Sometimes respondents start a survey to see if the first few questions are interesting, then decide whether it is worth finishing.

Putting a sensitive question up front immediately raises a red flag with respondents who have privacy concerns and increases the likelihood that they will abandon the survey. It is better to lead the questionnaire with simple items that draw respondents into the survey process and engage their interest. Placing sensitive items at the end of the survey is not ideal either. Dealing with sensitive questions can be unpleasant for many respondents, even if they choose not to answer them. Researchers should not risk ending the survey with respondents feeling suspicious or offended. Typically, it is acceptable to end the survey with demographic questions as these are usually the least important items and raise the lowest level of privacy concerns.

Best practice methods suggest placing sensitive questions toward the middle of the questionnaire. Putting sensitive questions in the middle of the survey design lets the researcher draw the participant into the response process and build a base level of trust before sensitive topics are raised. This strategy also leaves room for less sensitive questions to be raised closer to the end of the questionnaire. If you must start or end the survey with demographics, that approach is acceptable, but it is worthwhile to place the most sensitive items closer to the middle.

The Takeaways

Personal questions should only be asked when absolutely necessary and the respondent should always be given the option to not answer the question (i.e. prefer not to say or not applicable). Whilst you run the risk of the respondent not answering any of your personal questions, you will reduce the risk of survey abandonment.

By building trust with your respondent, making them feel that it’s purely human to have the issue or behavior you’re trying to collect data about, and finding soft, indirect ways to pierce the issue, you are allowing respondents to contribute more truthfully and calmly. Designing a questionnaire and understanding the best way to word a sensitive question can be described as an art form, but with the proper training and tools, artists of any kind can create masterpieces.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ariel Hagaman
I was born and raised in New Jersey, and currently work for AYTM as Director of Client Services. I am a graduate of the University of Phoenix, and have always found that I am at my best when working with people. My favorite past-times are reading, skiing, and yoga!