Writing for the Small Screen? The Importance of Minimizing Question Length

Survey design can be a challenge when designing questionnaires for small screen sizes

Consider the following open-ended question:

Other than cost or price, if there was one thing that Organization X could do to help you and your business in the future, what would that be?

There isn’t too much wrong with the wording. It’s clear and easily understood. However, there is one thing that can be done to improve it. The question can be made shorter. For example:

Apart from changing prices, what one thing could Organization X do better?

adaptive-questionnairesThe revised wording is considerably shorter but the meaning has been retained. The responses you’d get are unlikely to differ greatly from the original question.

Across all survey methods, from face-to-face to online, shorter questions have always been better. Respondents don’t want to have to read or listen to long lines of text. Shorter questions make surveys feel faster in pace. Respondents feel more involved and provide a better quality of response. 

There is, however, another fast growing pressure to “go short”. Ever increasing numbers of surveys are being completed on mobile devices where the screen size is smaller and the number of words you can practically present to a respondent at any one time is fewer. An average of 1 in 5 online surveys programmed using Snap Survey Software are now completed on either smartphones or tablets (See: 1 in 5 Survey Participants Are Using Mobile Devices). While Snap Surveys’ Adaptive Questionnaire feature allows you to present a version of your survey suitable for the device on which it is being viewed, survey designers also need to ensure that the question and answer texts are adapted for the small screen. Long questions don’t work well on mobiles irrespective of how well the software renders surveys on mobile devices.

I recently attended a “Bonsai Survey Workshop” hosted by Lightspeed GMI’s Vice President of Innovation, Jon Puleston. The aim of the workshop was to equip attendees to write shorter, more engaging and more effective surveys. One useful rule of thumb Jon shared with us was to think of every question as a tweet and restrict it to 140 characters or less. Mobile users are used to absorbing information in small chunks. We need to design surveys that match their experience across other applications or risk being rejected and ignored.

About the Author

Gary-Austin-Austin-ResearchGary Austin of Austin Research has over 20 years of experience in designing, managing, and interpreting quantitative research projects. He, along with his wife and colleague Julie, shares a true passion for the quality and integrity of surveys, and shares his insights through The Campaign For Better Surveys. Gary will continue to contribute as a regular guest blogger for Snap Surveys. Want to follow Gary?

Twitter: @AustinResearch

Website: austinresearch.co.uk

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Blog: Austin Research Blog


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