Let’s Get Personal (Asking Sensitive Questions)

There comes a time in everyone’s life when you have to ask a personal question and we all know how awkward it can be. The same can be said for online surveys – every once in a while you are going to need to ask a sensitive or personal question to your respondents. This could it their email address, an opinion on a touchy subject or even their age.

It is difficult asking personal questions in your survey for a number of reasons:

• People are naturally uncomfortable giving out sensitive information, especially to a company or person that they do not know personally.

• If people do not want to be asked personal questions, there is the potential for respondents to skip those questions or to exit the survey completely.

• There is the risk of respondents answering personal or sensitive questions untruthfully to keep privacy. Or, they may answer the question in a way that they think makes them look good.

The good news is that it is much easier to use online surveys rather than phone or face to face to ask personal questions. You are more likely to get reliable answers using online surveys as there is the potential for increased privacy and even total anonymity.

Nevertheless, you can still run risk of receiving “prefer not to say” answers or total survey abandonment when you ask your sensitive questions, so you do need to be careful when asking these types of questions.

Some Top Tips To Asking Personal Questions

Top Tip #1
Ensure that the respondent knows at the start of your survey that all answers are completely anonymous or at least confidential (which will mean that the identity of the answers received will not be shared beyond the people who are running the survey. Assurances of confidentiality can make it easier to obtain private information).

Top Tip #2
Be aware of your wording when asking personal questions in your survey. There is a trend called “social desirability bias” which is where the respondent will give their answers based on what they believe is the most socially acceptable/favorable. A good way to combat this effect 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 about healthy eating you can ask the question in this way, “When asking about healthy diets, we’ve found that people often aren’t able to eat 5 portions of fruits/vegetables a day. How many portions of fruit/vegetables do you have a day on average?” This way, if the respondent eats less that 5 a day they will not feel ashamed for admitting it and will be more likely to answer honestly.

Top Tip #3
Ask your personal or sensitive questions near the end of survey. If you need to ask any personal questions or if you need to ask contact information questions, save them for the end of your survey. If you ask these kinds of questions too soon, it can discourage people from answering your survey.

Top Tip #4
Personal questions should be asked only when absolutely necessary and you should always allow the client to choose the option not to answer the question (i.e. prefer not to say, not applicable etc). Whilst you run the risk of the respondent not answering any of your personal questions, you will reduce the risk of survey abandonment.