P.Mean: An example of a bad survey (created 2010-06-11).

I was asked to fill out an Internet survey to define my "consulting needs." That's a rather strange invitation, and sounds almost like a cheap way to develop business leads. But it was a request through LinkedIn, so I thought it was worth filling out. I want to try to build my contacts at LinkedIn, and filling out a short survey seemed like a small price to pay to get a potential lead for my own consulting business. When I went to the webpage with the actual survey, though, I was shocked and disappointed with what I found.

First, the survey led off with a question about my age. This is generally a bad approach. You want to build trust in a survey by asking the non-personal questions first (e.g., what types of consulting services have you used for your business) and then after people understand the nature of the survey, you have a better chance to get them to answer (and answer honestly) questions of a more personal nature. Also, if you ask for age, you tend to get better responses if you group it into broad categories rather than asking for an exact age.

But it gets worse than just asking about my age. The second question, what is your gender, offered three choices: male, female, and transgender. The third question was even more shocking: what is your sexual orientation. Your choices are bisexual, gay/lesbian, straight, transexual. Now, I'm all in favor of asking questions like this if it is needed for the research. If you are interested in the tendency of people to use protection against sexually transmitted diseases, then you need to ask such questions. But assessing consulting needs? I'd be very offended if a potential consultant tried to tailor their services to me differently if they knew I was transgender or bisexual (I'm neither, by the way).

Less offensive (but still too personal) was a question about marital status (thank goodness the author didn't ask about polygamous relationships) and a question about the number of children. You might be able to make a case for this last question, because a father or mother of a large family might want to use consulting services so as to free up more time for the kids. But this is quite a stretch, if you ask me.

I could have just skipped the questions I didn't like, but I decided to pass on the entire survey. If many others feel as upset about these personal questions as I did, that could seriously skew the results of the survey.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. This page was written by Steve Simon and was last modified on 2010-06-11. Need more information? I have a page with general help resources. You can also browse for pages similar to this one at Category: Survey design.