5 Tips For Asking Sensitive Survey Questions

It is no secret that completes are increasingly difficult to get, and even more so when the survey questions can be deemed sensitive.

It is no secret that completes are increasingly difficult to get, and even more so when the survey questions can be deemed sensitive. Market researchers are faced with the reality of dwindling response rates; which can be exacerbated when asking questions around drug use, personal health, political affiliations, and beyond.

It has never been more important to approach sensitive survey questions with care in order to preserve response rate and get a robust representative sample. Special attention must be paid to ensure that the survey does not appear too intrusive – for risk of offending the respondent or encouraging them to be dishonest with their responses.

Social desirability bias is when respondents feel compelled to provide inaccurate answers due to perceived societal pressure. In addition to this unease, respondents may also be apprehensive to provide more personal information if they are unsure about the security of their data.

How can asking sensitive questions impact your survey metrics? There are 3 key downfalls:

  • Dip in overall response rates
  • Single question decline rates
  • Response accuracy

How can we increase the likelihood of a steady response rate with accurate answers?

Below, we have outlined 5 effective tactics for asking sensitive survey questions.

1. Go the Multichannel Route

Integrated survey platforms help researchers target a single respondent database and follow their responses across multiple channels. For example, sending an online survey after a phone interview is completed. With the right tools, the logic of the online survey can trigger questions based on CATI responses and pose questions on sensitive topics that are easier to respond to online than on the phone.

2. Switch It Up – Live

Redirecting respondents mid-interview to a self-completion channel to get sensitive information can encourage more honest responses. This lets respondents enjoy the anonymity and privacy needed to feel comfortable divulging more personal information. This is a great opportunity to switch from CATI to an IVR system, in which respondents can use their phone keypad to answer, and not have a person-to-person conversation.

3. Watch Your Language

Managing a survey should not be treated as a “set it and forget it” endeavor. It is wise to pay close attention to real-time analytics as responses flow in. As such, if a significant drop in responses at a question is noted, alter the question! Reiterate survey anonymity and data security for questions that are low performing, so respondents get some peace of mind.

4. Tweak the Flow

Beyond verbiage, it may also be ideal to verify the logic and flow of the survey if respondents are turned off by sensitive questions. Try moving sensitive questions further into the survey so respondents have time to get acclimated to the process and feel more comfortable. Trigger ease-in question questions for respondents who selected “refuse” on the first sensitive question.

5. Be a Good Host

As being tech-literate becomes more mainstream, the average respondent/consumer is increasingly aware of issues surrounding data privacy. There is a growing number of respondents that prefer to be assured that their data is being stored by the highest possible security. Consider hosting on servers internally rather than in the cloud.

Keep Response Rates High

It’s time to take measures to protect your response rates. In an age of growing concerns over data security, those who do respond to your surveys could drop off if prompted in an uncomfortable way. Even in self-administered surveys, respondents may still provide dishonest information as a result of sensitive questions.

There are a number of ways to use survey technology to your advantage when asking the tough questions!


6 ways technology can help you tackle sensitive survey questions

Members of the market research industry find themselves fighting tooth and nail for decent response rates and representative sample.

So when your study is about drug use, sexual behaviors, political and religious beliefs, or other sensitive topics, you’ll need to ensure that you’re doing everything possible to keep response rates steady.

Asking sensitive questions via surveys or interviews can be considered intrusive or offensive, regardless of what the respondent’s answer may be. And if the respondent feels that their response could be contrary to popular societal norms, they may be more inclined to provide a dishonest answer that conforms to their perception of normal (this is called ‘social desirability bias’). Compounding the issues of question intrusiveness and social desirability bias, respondents may not trust that their responses will remain anonymous, or that the data will be kept secure.

Sensitive questions can negatively affect three important survey measurements: overall response rates, single question decline rates, and response accuracy – due to a higher percentage of respondents who answer sensitive questions dishonestly. That means that the inclusion of sensitive questions in a survey needs to be handled in an intelligent and delicate way whenever possible. Fortunately, technology can help.

The chosen survey channel can compound the issues around sensitive questions. The selected channel can exponentially increase respondents’ hesitation to answering sensitive questions:

  1. Self-completion surveys (e.g. Voxco Online): in which respondents complete surveys on their own time and in privacy;
  2. Telephone interviews (e.g. Voxco CATI): in which survey call center interviewers ask respondents questions over the phone;
  3. Personal interviews (e.g. Voxco Mobile Offline): in which interviewers use mobile devices to ask respondents questions directly in a face-to-face setting.

In general, respondents are more likely to answer sensitive questions honestly via self-completion surveys. But there’s tremendous value in choosing personal interviews over self-completion surveys, or choosing a complimentary multichannel approach, so interviews should not be ruled out immediately.

Here are six ways to use technology to boost response rates and response accuracy on sensitive questions:

1. Channel selection

As we mentioned above, self-completion surveys that can be taken by respondents in privacy offer a better atmosphere of anonymity which helps respondents feel more comfortable answering sensitive questions. The elimination of an interviewer can also reduce the social desirability bias introduced by the presence of another person.

2. Multichannel studies

Your studies don’t need to stick to only one survey method. Using an integrated survey platform, you can target a single respondent database and follow sample across multiple channels. For example, after a phone interview is completed, invite a segment of the respondents to complete an online survey. The logic of the online survey can trigger follow-up questions based on their CATI responses and probe into more sensitive topics that respondents would be less likely to confide to an interviewer.

3. Live channel switching

Consider redirecting interviewees mid-interview to a self-completion channel to ask sensitive questions. This temporarily gives respondents the anonymity and privacy needed for sensitive topics. Redirect CATI respondents to an IVR system to answer a few sensitive questions using their phone keypad, then return them to the interviewer to finish the survey. Pass the CAPI tablet to respondents directly and let them enter their answers directly into the questionnaire without having to say the words aloud to an interviewer.

4. Live question wording changes

As your survey progresses, be sure to keep an eye on real-time response analytics. If you note significant drop off rates at a specific question, or higher-than-average item nonresponse rates on specific questions, take action! Alter question wording, and instantly push the updates live. Add in some language that emphasizes survey anonymity and data security when surveys start veering into sensitive territory. That’s the benefit of live survey updating.

5. Survey logic/flow changes

If early results show that respondents are being turned off by sensitive questions, you could also adjust the logic and flow of the survey. Move sensitive questions further into the survey to build more trust and rapport with respondents before they get to them. If you have a sensitive question earlier in the survey, trigger ease-in questions and language to show only for those respondents who chose ‘refuse’ on the first sensitive question. Or go the other way: build trust with those respondents who did answer the sensitive question by hiding demographic or identifying questions at the end of the survey that could make respondents feel that their responses will be connected back to them.

6. Data hosting

Sometimes it’s enough for respondents to know that the survey is anonymous. But other respondents could want assurances that their data is being stored with the highest possible security and encryption, or on internal servers versus stored “out there” in the cloud. So give them those assurances.

Use technology to maintain response rates!

In a period of declining response rates, it is likely that respondents will be even more reluctant to take part in surveys that tackle sensitive topics. And in an age of growing concerns over data security, those who do respond to your surveys could be less inclined to reveal potentially embarrassing information about themselves.

Even in self-administered surveys, respondents may still misreport or refuse answers on sensitive questions. But there are a number of ways to use survey technology to your advantage when asking the tough questions. Get in touch with the team at Voxco if you’d like to discuss more unique ways to use a flexible survey platform to collect sensitive respondent data.


Behind-the-Scenes with our Client Feedback Team

We have been making some of the industry’s most flexible survey tools for over 25 years. We’re always evolving our powerful multichannel platform, which includes launching new products, major releases, and regular maintenance and feature updates. Through it all, we’ve definitely become experts in the craft of survey software.

But savvy product managers know that there’s a gap between the knowledge that comes from creating and refining a product as a developer, and as an end user who is actively using it daily. To close that gap, our Voxco Online product team has long been tapping into the user perspective – what features do they need the most, how do they spend their time on the platform, what would they do differently?

Informally reaching out to users for feedback had always been happening, but just last year, our product team formalized a client outreach program that maximizes the impact of the feedback on the final product. The outreach has been invaluable; not just for our team, but for clients who could help shape the product’s development.

Now that it’s a formal part of our process, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at our client outreach programs – how they work, and how much of an impact they have had on the online survey tools. Let’s take a peek under the hood:

User Surveys

We make survey software, so it was a natural jump to use the platform to ask our own clients for feedback. To gain quantitative data about in-demand features, the surveys asked multiple choice and ranking questions that aimed to prioritize the relative importance of new features. At the end of each survey, qualitative data was collected via a series of open-ended questions that asked users to precisely describe what key features would maximize their organization’s use of the tool, and how existing functionalities could be further enhanced.

Advisory Committee

Post-survey, we wanted to continue the qualitative conversations, and dig deeper with active users on how they could maximize their productivity on the platform. So we assembled a team of 15 of our most active clients, representing varying industries, organization sizes and survey types. In the pursuit of more qualitative insights about specific upcoming features, we formalized this group into a client advisory committee.

When we are in the early planning stages of a major new release, we can now approach a team of active users as a sounding board. The conversation starts as an overview call to get their input on how they use a specific feature set. We then use this rich feedback to further define product requirements and create interactive mock-ups of the new feature set. We hop on a second call to present the mock-ups to their teams, and fine-tune the details over time.

Data galore!

It was nice to see complimentary patterns from our varied client types that helped validate our internal team’s existing direction. The client survey offered instant clarity on which new features were must-haves, which helped the product team to immediately start prioritizing the next few releases.

We were amazed by the long, detailed answers given to the open-ended questions. It was clear that clients were very open to the communication channel and were excited to have their voice heard. The responses helped stimulate new ideas for future features and started many active discussions among the development team.

We have witnessed very high involvement levels from all members of the advisory committee, and the resulting conversations feel very collaborative. The members often choose to gather project-specific suggestions from their larger team, and even share the feature mock-ups with them for more robust user feedback. It’s quite clear that the advisory committee enjoys being consulted and collaborating on feature development.

Overall, the entire process has helped us define a very solid road map for the next year worth of updates, and with the help of many of our users, we have populated our first 2 major releases with many of their most commonly requested features.

Coming soon: results

The earliest major release that was directly impacted by the new client feedback is coming out in just a couple of months! And the client feedback team has already moved on to collecting data on a future release that will enhance our reporting tool. Next month, we’ll share with you some of the results of the first few client outreach initiatives right here on the blog.

If you’re a user of the industry’s most flexible survey platform, keep an eye out for our surveys to join in the conversation – you could help us define the future of Voxco Online. Stay tuned!


5 Unique Uses for CAPI Personal Interviewing Survey Software

Adding an interviewer to the mix for survey research is tremendously useful. We’ve discussed that before.

But thinking outside the box, what can personal interviewing tools help you achieve? The benefits of a flexible CAPI tool go far beyond just conducting face-to-face surveys. The power of an advanced mobile data collection software opens doors to dozens of potential uses for researchers. For example:

1. A gateway to richer insights

Excuse me sir, would you like to try our new granola bar? That’s a question that stops a lot more people in the street than asking somebody to complete a survey. Begin with a taste, and work your way up to more. CAPI can act as a gateway survey that leads to more data down the line. A taste of a new product leads to a quick on-the-street survey. Those responses lead to an invitation to self-complete a longer online survey, or even to join a panel of loyal users. When it’s part of a richer multichannel survey system, personal interviewing software can be used as a first step on a longer path to getting more insights from more people.

2. Secret shopping

Your ‘respondents’ could actually be inanimate objects. And your ‘interviewer’ could be more of an observer. CAPI tools offer the perfect solution for managing a team of loosely trained secret shoppers. Assign the ‘interviewers’ specific stores and they can use a mobile device to answer questions about their observations (e.g. quantity of products displayed, shelf placement, service ratings, etc.). They can upload photos, videos and audio files to accompany their findings. Managers can deploy shoppers, update survey questions, monitor metadata, and view live results from a central location.

3. Self-completion offline surveys

It’s common to think of CAPI tools as purely interviewer-based. But collecting data via mobile devices in offline mode can also be used for self-completion surveys. At events or in stores, tablets can be affixed in high-traffic areas to encourage patrons to leave feedback. Tablets can be handed off to shoppers or passersby to answer a quick survey with no need for a WiFi connection. If your tool offers offline data collection and intuitive survey design, let respondents use it themselves and synchronize at the end of the day to analyze the insights.

4. Event dashboards

At events, CAPI tools can be used as an attention-grabbing results dashboard. Some of our clients have incorporated one or two fun questions into a longer face-to-face interview (e.g. ‘Who will win the Superbowl this year?’). As interviewers stop attendees to answer surveys on tablets, responses to those fun questions are regularly synchronized via WiFi with a results dashboard on an in-booth display. The results draw attention, start conversations between interviewers and attendees, and encourage participation in the larger survey.

5. Guided multilingual self-completion surveys

Collecting feedback at tourist hotspots can be difficult. There is a natural barrier between multilingual tourists and monolingual interviewers. But a good CAPI tool allows interviewers to seamlessly change the language of the survey, and turn the tablet around for respondents to answer questions directly. Just ask Cimigo Hong Kong, who have been doing it for years!

Who do you need to interview?

Think of the personal interviewing software as a set of outreach tools that help you meet more potential respondents, and get more varied data in the field. The best researchers don’t restrict themselves to standard methodologies. Voxco Mobile Offline offers engaging survey design, powerful interviewer management, and offline data collection. That’s huge potential for researchers who want to get unique results.


Are personal interviews better than self-completion surveys?

We recently outlined the benefits of letting respondents complete surveys with no guidance from interviewers. Self-completion surveys are the most common method for quantitative surveys in the market research industry, primarily due to the cost and ease of deployment.

But what about interviewer-led quantitative surveys? What are the benefits to having a professional guiding respondents through a survey (face-to-face or via telephone) and recording their answers?

Here are a few reasons to choose interviewer-based surveys versus self-completion:

Location-specific, moment-specific insights

In-person surveys are brought directly to the respondent, wherever they are. This is a huge advantage for interviewing consumers when they are still present in the specific place your survey references (e.g. mall, in home, tourist destination). Interviewers can even incorporate a full product experience, including touching, tasting, or viewing products in their natural setting.

Asking for feedback while respondents are still experiencing something will generally lead to richer responses than relying on their memories.

Interviewer guidance

In-person or telephone interviewers can provide assistance and clarity on question meaning. They can ensure the question was answered adequately. They can aid recall by prompting. And they can keep respondents motivated to remain focused on the survey.

Well-trained interviewers (and well-structured/well-written surveys) can accomplish all of this without biasing the survey results themselves.

Reach new respondents

In-person and telephone surveys allow you to reach groups with lower internet penetration. And friendly interviewers can motivate participation from some types of people who could be less likely to respond to online surveys/join online panels.

When beginning a project, survey project managers are faced with the task of reach. If their existing online survey panel/database isn’t specific enough to the required demographic, intercept interviews or regional dialing can reach a whole new world of respondents with no prior need for their contact information.

Lower respondent initiative needed

Once a respondent is reached in-person or on the phone, all they need to do is verbally answer questions as they’re posed by the interviewer. There’s no need for them to read the questions, or to manually manipulate the survey itself to provide responses.

Why not both?

The market research world is not black-or-white, and researchers fortunately don’t need to choose between exclusively online or exclusively in-person surveys.

Some studies need the speed and freedom provided by online self-completion surveys. Some need the richer level of respondent data that generally comes from interviews. Most researchers see the value of both; these methodologies can be packaged to offer the flexibility of channel choice on individual studies, and the power of a centralized multichannel survey database.

What’s right for you? Let us know and we’ll show you how the world’s most flexible survey software can fit into your methodology, and fits comfortably into your budget.


January Feature Updates

It’s still early in the year, but we are already making major updates to the industry’s most flexible survey software.

The beta release of Voxco Mobile Offline and its integration into the existing Voxco Online platform has triggered a round of updates packaged together as Voxco Online 5.6. This new version will further improve the intuitiveness of the navigation layout, and add a few new navigation elements that will improve user productivity. We’re communicating these changes directly with clients for now. We’ll update the blog on Voxco Online 5.6 and Voxco Mobile Offline availability very soon.

Along with the navigation improvements, we are also packaging a handful of additional features based on feedback from clients and our own internal team of survey experts. Here’s a list of the new minor features hitting with the release of Voxco Online 5.6:

Detailed notifications & execution history on tasks/distributions

When importing samples or exporting results, users can now receive a comprehensive summary of which tasks and distributions were executed. Select the ‘send notification’ option for tasks that you want to have tracked in these reports.

  • Distribution summaries: Task name, survey name, description, content, schedule, and numbers of sends and failures.
  • Export summaries: Task and file name, file size, survey name, description details, schedule, filter details, and numbers of successful imports or failures.
Adding RGBA transparency for color picker

The color pickers within the questionnaire editor and Look & Feel editor now support RGBA transparency, so that survey creators can set transparencies for selected colors within their survey designs.

Show only pending/running distributions

We have added quick filters so that you can easily see which distributions are currently being executed and which ones are still pending. This will be a benefit for surveys that have a lot of distributions.

Updated survey engine default doctype to HTML

The default doctype for the survey engine has been changed from XHTML to the more standard HTML. This doctype offers better compliance with accessibility guidelines (e.g. WCAG).

Results encryption using PGP on export tasks

When you’re exporting survey results, you can now apply PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption. Users who employ PGP encryption software can now use this method when sending results via email or uploading to an FTP. Select the ‘Encrypt files with PGP’ option (highlighted below).

Remove curly brackets and spaces from response exports

For all formats (except Open-End), survey responses are now exportable without spaces and braces – { } – for all system variables. Select the ‘Remove Curly Brackets and Spaces Of System Variables’ option:

If you have any questions about any of these, or how they work, let us know! We are rolling these updates out along with Voxco Online 5.6, and communicating details to clients directly. Plenty more information still to come on Voxco Online 5.6 – stay tuned!