Demographic questions are a key component of any market research study. Understanding respondent demographics puts their responses in context and ensures surveys are answered by the intended audience. However, researchers often don’t consider how asking demographic questions and their placement in surveys impact the way respondents answer the rest of a questionnaire. Survey bias, inaccurate results or survey abandonment can result when demographics are not asked in the right way in the right place in a survey. Some respondents may have security concerns about sharing personal information like age or income. Yet, other respondents may fall victim to social desirability bias and respond to demographic questions in a way that makes them appear “better” to the researcher.

The framing of demographic questions and response options also has an impact on the researcher’s ability to analyze the results. Any future analysis to be done with the survey results should be taken into account when drafting demographic questions. For example, the results of asking respondents their exact age will result in different data which would be analyzed in different ways than asking respondents their age range.

So, what can researchers do to avoid these potential pitfalls?

  • Ask demographic questions at the end of a survey after respondents have answered all the other questions to avoid the so-called “stereotype threat”. Some respondents may feel uncomfortable with demographic questions that could stereotype them.  If those questions are at the beginning of the survey it may alienate respondents, cause alarm or make them feel insecure answering the rest of the questions. Stereotype threat can even impact the way people perform on tests. Students score worse on math and verbal standardized tests when asked demographic questions at the beginning of the test versus the end.
  • Avoid respondent fatigue and potential security concerns by asking only the demographic questions that are truly necessary for the research. Excessive personal questions may lead respondents to respond inaccurately or abandon the survey.
  • Respondents may be more likely to provide accurate responses to sensitive questions when they are given the option to respond with a range as opposed to an exact value. For example, a respondent may feel more comfortable indicating their household income falls between $30,000-$50,000 as opposed to providing an exact income value.
  • Because most survey results in the U.S. will be weighted based on U.S. Census demographic distributions, it is important to use the same categories and ranges used in the Census. For example, the Census asks respondents to indicate their race in a separate question than Hispanic ethnicity. Weighting based on race and ethnicity will be simpler if surveys ask for this important information in two separate questions as well.