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Given a 10-step online survey (mostly yes/no radio buttons), where is it best to ask for the users' personal data e.g. name, age, contact details?

My intuition says putting it at the end will yield better completion rates, as users have already invested time in filling out the "easier" and less personally involved part.

What factors should be considered? Are there reasons to ask for users' personal data at the beginning instead?

Should placement be different if the users' personal data input is optional?

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I don't know...I find filling out a text form (requiring me to leave and return to the mouse and type) to be much more 'difficult' a form-filling task than choosing radio buttons. Personally, I'm extremely anti-personal data collection, and I often view demographic questions at the end of a survey is a sneak attack. I've abandoned forms (from entities I didn't trust) for that. –  msanford Jan 29 '13 at 15:15
    
If you put it on the start, you can use it to filter the questions you show. So you don't have to ask about things, which don't apply to the user. Or if you aren't interested in the opinions of different user-groups, you could filter them before they even have to start the test. –  K.. Jan 29 '13 at 15:18
    
@kontur what personal data would you like to collect and why? what are the benefits for the user that completes this survey? –  Igor-G Jan 29 '13 at 15:21
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I don't mind too much filling out surveys for companies I use, however providing personal data will never, ever happen in a survey, irrelevant of the company. If I get to the end of the survey only to find the details be more and more personal I like @msanford will abandon the survey. More to the point I'm generally left really annoyed for the time wasted. If you want personal details, my opinion is to ask for them first anything else feels a little dishonest. –  R4D4 Jan 30 '13 at 8:15
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Once you finish the survey, leaving your personal details could be optional. "Thank you for filling our survey. Would you like to participate in our draw? Leave us your email address". –  Yisela Feb 4 '13 at 20:58
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15 Answers 15

up vote 13 down vote accepted
+50

I have read up on this a bit, and it seems that my answer will contradict some of the things that have already been mentioned. My sources are all academic, and as such reflect the use of on-line surveys for conducting experiments. Feel free to read the sources that I link to, and draw your own conclusions. I mention some peripheral work as it relates to on-line surveys in general, and then focus on personal information and incentives.

The first thing worth noting, is that people respond differently to on-line surveys than they do to off-line/paper-based surveys/interviews. This is important when you start to read up on other survey research. For a detailed list of quality criteria that should be taken into account when designing on-line surveys (including when to ask for personal information), have a look at the paper by Andrews et al. titled "Electronic Survey Methodology: A Case Study in Reaching Hard-to-Involve Internet Users".

You mentioned in a comment that you want to use the personal information in a lottery for prizes. This is important, and I'll factor that into my answer (asking for personal information usually goes hand-in-hand with offering incentives).

I assume you are sincerely interested in the honest feedback of the respondents (otherwise, why ask them questions in the first place?). I also assume that you are more interested in "quality" responses rather than "quantity". The respondents, may not be as serious or trustworthy as you believe. They may start the survey just to "see what it is about", then drop out after a few questions, without contributing in a meaningful way. For a detailed classification of participant's response (and non-response) patterns (the different "types" of respondents), see the 2001 paper "Classifying Response Behaviors in Web-based Surveys" by Bosnjak et al.

The opposite is also true. Honest people may not believe that you (or your company) have trustworthy intentions ("will the lottery really take place?"), and as such may refuse to partake in the survey, or identify themselves. See the 2001 paper by O'Neil "Analysis of Internet Users’ Level of Online Privacy Concerns" for a general overview of how people started fearing how their information will be used on-line in the late '90s.

So, the challenge is to find people whose responses you can trust, and who trust you. You would like to control the drop-out rate, and provide them with an incentive to complete the survey honestly.

The 2002 paper by Reips "Standards for Internet-based Experimenting" mentions three simple techniques available to reduce drop-out (assuming a one-item-per-page survey design, as opposed to a single-page survey):

In the high-hurdle technique, motivationally adverse factors are announced or concentrated as close to the beginning of the Web experiment as possible. On the following pages, the concentration and impact of these factors should be reduced continuously. As a result, the highest likelihood for dropout resulting from these factors will be at the beginning of the Web experiment.

Summary: Asking for personal information at the start may filter out people who are not serious about completing the survey (assuming they value their personal information and do not trust what you will do with it - i.e. they are not motivated to provide it).

A second precaution that can be taken to reduce dropout is asking for the degree of seriousness of a participant's involvement or for a probability estimate that one will complete the whole experiment.

Summary: You can gauge the seriousness of the participant by challenging them on it, by asking directly.

The warm-up technique is based on the observation that most dropout will take place at the beginning of an online study, forming a "natural dropout curve"... A main reason for the initial dropout is the short orientation period many participants show before making a final decision on their participation... To keep dropout low during the experimental phase, as defined by the occurrence of the experimental manipulation, it is wise to place its beginning several Web pages deep into the study. The warm-up period can be used for practice trials, piloting of similar materials or buildup of behavioral routines, and assurance that participants are complying with instructions.

Summary: Ask the important non-demographic questions later on, not at the start.

How does this tie into your question about asking personal information? There is some interesting (perhaps counter-intuitive) research on where to ask for it. The generally accepted place to ask for personal information is at the start of the survey. People who refuse to provide it, drop out. This is the high-hurdle technique in action. Frick et al. describes in their 2001 article "Financial incentives, personal information and drop-out rate in online studies" that people who provide personal information at the start of the survey are more inclined to complete it (they can be considered "more serious"), whereas those who are only (suddenly?) requested to do so at the end, drop out.

There are negative side-effects of drop-outs, in that it may negatively affect the demographic makeup of the sample of participants. This negative effect of drop-out due to asking for personal information was confirmed by O'Neil et al. in the 2003 paper "Web-based research: Methodological variables' effects on dropout and sample characteristics".

An often-cited article "A meta-analysis of response rates in Web-or Internet-based surveys" by Cook et al. goes into much more detail on the pitfalls of sampling.

When it comes to incentives, a very technical 2006 article by Goritz titled "Incentives in Web Studies: Methodological Issues and a Review" examines if and when incentives are effective in on-line studies (including looking at different kinds of incentives). It covers a lot of ground, but she confirms:

"... material incentives increase the odds of a person responding by 19% over the odds without incentives"

As an aside, there are some points with regards to response bias and survey usability that may interest you (example: which UI controls may bias participant responses), mentioned in the 2004 paper "Human Research and Data Collection via the Internet" by Birnbaum. I would encourage looking for additional sources on survey usability though, as that was not the exclusive focus of the paper.

For a detailed treatment of designing questionnaires, the book "Questionnaire Design, Interviewing and Attitude Measurement" by Oppenheim is often cited, but there are many others available.

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EXCELLENT answer & list of references, I will have to go through them in more time, but this, I think, is a really good point that is relevant for my case: "Asking for personal information at the start may filter out people who are not serious about completing the survey". –  kontur Feb 4 '13 at 8:38
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I feel in terms of references and explanation for different choices this was the best answer; bounty goes to this answer, thank you. –  kontur Feb 7 '13 at 7:19
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Think of it like a man trying to date a woman and it becomes a little more intuitive.

You have to be funny and engaging and interesting to even get the conversation rolling.

Draw them in and do the work up front to make it entertaining and fun to participate.

For example... create an ad that a 3rd party website will include on its page. Let's say the end goal is to get as much information about people's opinions on Obama prior to the last election.

Show a cartoon asking Do you think Obama is a dud or stud? and the dud picture would have him being kicked by a donkey and the stud picture would have him with sunglasses with a huge smile throwing peace signs (or whatever your expected audience will be more likely to find humorous without being offensive)

After you have their attention, start to get more detailed and personal as they are voting on the website

Start asking more detailed questions that require more thought past a Yes / No such as multiple choice.

Make sure to reward answers to keep them going

After each answer show what other's thought and possibly give funny political facts that would entertain. Keep asking the next question with the reward of more interesting information and stats to follow.

In other words, BE ENGAGING AND INTERESTING

Nothing is for free. It will cost you your creativity and time to make it worth answering. Otherwise, you are just a boring cold caller.

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While i agree that the survey needs to be engaging, but there also is the danger of influencing the users' opinions –  kontur Feb 7 '13 at 5:31
    
I'm not sure where that is relavent any more than the questions themselves. Do you think you are less intelligent than me? That's a leading question indicating you might be in your head for example. Nothing to do with pulling in you at all. –  Jason Sebring Feb 7 '13 at 7:13
    
Not sure if I understand your comment. What I meant is that, if you show two extreme takes on a subject, this already can add to forming the participants opinion, and thus distorts the survey's outcome. –  kontur Feb 7 '13 at 7:16
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Oh absolutely true but that is just as likely a trap to fall into when asking questions themselves such as "Do you think Obama is ruining our economy?" That is what I mean by relavent. Its a wash. That issue exists in all forms of content exposed to the would be questionnaire. –  Jason Sebring Feb 7 '13 at 7:19
    
Ah okay, I understand what you mean. Thanks for pointing that out. All in all I think your answer has some good points to it! –  kontur Feb 7 '13 at 7:20
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What if you simply asked them to log in with a social network at the beginning? This would pull most of the person's personal info without even having to ask them directly.

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First, you have to ask yourself what information is critical to your survey. Is it the user information that you are collecting or is it the survey response (or both).

I know this may sound strange but if you can live without people filling in their personal information, then collect that information at the end. This will make filling out the survey more likely, one because filling out the survey is much "easier" for the user than typing (considering your survey is mostly radio buttons) and two, because asking for personal information scares people. If the personal information is critical, then ask for it first because they are either going to spend the time filling out the survey and then get frustrated that they have to provide personal information or they can not waste their time if they are willing to give the personal info.

Think about your goal here and make your decision based on that.

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Consider that people might stop filling the survey at any point. If you accept incomplete forms, then be sure to also consider data importance when ordering the questions.

So if personal data is of utmost importance you must put it first if you plan to accept half-filled in surveys.

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Have you considered the A B technique, I mean, alternate your workflow so every second survey you use workflow A (ask at beginning) or B (ask at end) then after some time, check your answers and see which one works best.

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This will be a one-off survey, so even though your idea would be good to draw conclusions for following surveys, it doesn't help me decide on this one :) –  kontur Feb 6 '13 at 12:18
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I think the best thing is to know your survey target by getting their "public" data first.

When I say pblic data, I mean a few public data so as for them to fell comfortable that they are not exposing much and can go ahead with data filling.

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Not sure if this answer solves the problem as a whole, but you have a good point. –  kontur Feb 4 '13 at 18:42
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Although, every user has a different mind set prior to filling out a survey but let us consider few cases which can broadly classify the solutions for this question -

1. You are kind of user who is in a mood to fill out the survey: For such users I think keeping the personal details at the end will be serve the purpose of survey. Since, at the beginning they will be more productive and their performance will directly affect the quality of answer in survey.

2. Type of users who are filling the survey as a formality: Here, it doesn't matter whether you put the personal details at the beginning or end. I would suggest keep the details at the beginning since that is more familiar section to the user and he'll fill it out ASAP and then he'll be motivated to go forward.

3. Your survey questions depends on user personal details like his age group, or location: Then obviously you should keep the details at the beginning. So that based on the details your questions can be modified automatically.

So, this means if you are targeting very specific set of users who are interested in filling out your survey then go for personal details at the end. And if the survey is for general audience then you can keep personal details section at the beginning.

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Your answer: It's best to ask for personal information at the end. Me personally, I would show them the current statistical results of the survey after they submit their answers, and then ask them politely to enter their personal info and why it's needed before adding their answers to the survey. I do not know what kind of survey you are actually creating or why, but this is a non-intrusive method and best UX practice, primarily when the user's happiness is top priority. If your using the survey to stock pile peoples' info for later use/profit, then save the survey results for after they give their info at the end.

Give this a read. I believe everything you want to know is here: Online survey scripting best practice

NOTE I didn't read all the answers, so if this is basically the same answer as someones else then feel free to paste my link in your answer and flag this as duplicate.

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There is evidence that asking for personal data at the end of a long sign up form or at the end of a test improves conversion rates, but this is somewhat obvious as the person has by that point invested time into it. This situation is also affected by the person wanting something that they will achieve by giving the information.

A survey is rather different, in that more often than not, the person answering the question has little to no incentive in completing the task other than them possibly not wanting to have wasted their time.

A lot however depends on how personal the questions are - which is very much cultural. If you were to ask for my name and income at the end of a survey, I wouldn't finish it. But if you were to ask my religion or sexual orientation, I would. For some people this situation would be reversed.

The best bet is to try changing the order around and watch your falloff rate. Just be sure to get enough samples to be sure.


References:
HowTo.gov is run by the US government to help various federal agencies with customer experience - which includes surveys. In Basics of Survey and Question Design they state that:

If you have sensitive questions, or questions requesting personal information, include them towards the end of the survey, after trust has been built.

I will check with my Statics Professor and see if she has any academic references on this, but they will likely not be free to read by the general public. I'll update once I have heard from her.


A side note here. You should as much as possible avoid asking personal questions (especially personally identifiable ones) in a survey, as you are unlikely to get honest answers when you do so. Your data will be skewed, and your results may mislead you.

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"There is evidence" link? –  Charles Wesley Jan 29 '13 at 17:24
    
@Charles I've real this a number of times in various reports after A/B testing. I'm sure it's common enough to find with some searching. –  JohnGB Jan 29 '13 at 17:54
    
With "personal questions" I refer to mostly demographic and contact information, not questions of personal believes or convictions. –  kontur Jan 29 '13 at 19:38
    
@kontur contact information is about as personal as you can get with many people. –  JohnGB Jan 29 '13 at 19:41
    
@JohnGB Indeed it is - I just meant to point out I am not asking personal opinions, but data. As I added in the comments in reply to Igor-G's question, the information is used should a participant win in a lottery all participants take part in. –  kontur Jan 29 '13 at 19:45
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I think it depends on how important this data is to you. Do you have absolutely no idea what your demographic looks like and this is how you are finding out? Then it should be at the beginning. Is this supplementary info to help you cross-tab the survey results? Then I would say towards the end and take your cross-tabs with a grain of salt. Surveys tend to have a funnel for conversion so you mainly want to focus on your most important data (ie research objective of your survey) at the beginning.

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I would suggest you would ask the user to give their personal information before the survey. Another way to do it is to let them know that there is a form at the end of the survey that they can choose to fill out and win something. Let them know that the form is not mandatory.

An honest interface is very important if you want your customers to enjoy their experience.

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+1 good link. So following this logic, not mentioning the form at the end would be dishonest and thus disappoint the users? –  kontur Jan 30 '13 at 7:30
    
I believe that the experience is going to be disappoint to the users. Be honest, speak to your user as if it's your friend, not a source of information and money. –  Igor-G Jan 30 '13 at 9:07
    
That link is nonsense. The example they use is of someone clearly trying to deceive users. Drawing any insight from that is quite impossible. It's like using a Win32 virus as a counter argument when debating the "OK" button being on the left or right of a dialog. –  MikeMurko Feb 4 '13 at 1:43
    
@MikeMurko this link show's that it is important to build the trust with the user. And when something unexpected happens, the users’ trust will begin to erode. –  Igor-G Feb 4 '13 at 9:27
    
Yes, trust is good - not arguing against it. But it's not very prescriptive. Perhaps it's relevant to the scenario in the question, but I don't see how asking for information at the beginning/end of a survey matches with what appears to be described as a phishing/spam scam. –  MikeMurko Feb 4 '13 at 14:36
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End or halfway through would work for me.

I don't want to start with the boring chore of filling out my data, I want an interesting question to answer, better yet BEFORE the survey even starts — in a call to action that takes me to it.

Why not let me Facebook share my name & such with you?

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Standard Progressive Disclosure should start at the simplest, least intrusive information first. Maybe even consider allowing users to put off answering some parts of the form (this will probably reduce completion rate of the "extra" fields but increase the completion rate of the start of the survey). But if you must do it all in one go, I'd generally recommend putting the more sensitive information later on.

Be up front about anonymity (if any) and the reason for collecting the personal information (you have one, right?) before asking for the personal bits. If you're suspicious that there are some questions that are really sensitive (names, email, etc) you might want to put them up front to let people fail fast. Make sure users' expectations are clear as well; if you're doing a demographic survey, call it that so people aren't caught off guard.

If these sensitive parts are optional, definitely put it at the end. If a single/few fields have that high of an abandonment rate, consider axing them altogether or at least making them optional. With optional fields at the end you get the benefit of higher completion rate (starting with the easy stuff) and people are less likely to be turned off when they see that those questions are optional. Seeing "Name, sex, age" etc at the top of a form might discourage people immediately, before they bother to see "optional". Make sure to clearly note that they're optional though, not just with a *, unless you've clearly already established a convention for optional fields.

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Thanks for introducing me to the term of "progressive disclosure"! –  kontur Jan 29 '13 at 19:40
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This isn't based on anything formal, but I would tend to think that it depends on how much frustration you mind your users experiencing. You might get a higher return rate if you put it at the end, but you are also going to have users walk away because they decide they don't want to share some piece of information at the end and that may leave them frustrated with you for wasting their time.

Another alternative if the information isn't strictly necessary would be to put it at the end and present it clearly as an optional portion if they'd like to provide info so you can get further feedback (or whatever other purpose you might need it for).

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