Be Wary How Long a Survey Takes

How long it takes a typical respondent to complete your legal industry survey goes far to determine the participation rate. If an invitee glances through the survey and senses that it will be a time suck, or starts in and begins to worry that it goes on and on, they might never answer the first question or might drop out. If a lawyer or paralegal is motivated enough to click on the link he or she will probably answer at least a few questions to get a sense of how quickly they move through the questionnaire. Psychologically speaking, if you start with cinch demographic questions such as title, office, and department, your law firm or law department’s respondent will press on: “This is easy!”

After the quick start, perceived time demands grow more urgent. The total number of questions on your online survey predicts poorly how many people will submit a full set of questions. One matrix table can take many more minutes to be filled in than a series of yes/no questions that shoot by rapidly. Priority questions, that ask for rankings and ratings, take time and cognitive effort; multiple-choice questions with plausible items on the list don’t demand too much thinking or time.

If answers come immediately to mind, and the person taking the survey doesn’t have to pause and look up figures or rummage back through time, the survey passes by quickly. When you ask them to ponder, recollect over time, research a response, or keep a slew of items in mind before coming to a decision, the survey creeps along. It’s not numbers of questions, it’s the format and internal content of questions that shapes perceptions of the clock ticking.

Page breaks and explanatory text carve surveys into manageable chunks, and help respondents feel they are chewing through effectively. When respondent’s despair, “Will this ever end?”, a roadmap of mileage to the destination helps. Likewise, a progress bar helps motivate respondents and bolster flagging enthusiasm – or confirms that they are trapped in survey doom.

• Skipping or branching (conditional logic) questions also shorten the time to complete a survey. If a person answers that they do not manage anyone, then the survey could skip a few questions that pertain only to managers.

• Well-designed and comprehensive radio buttons or drop-down menus help speed up survey takers. The answer that comes to mind matches an item: Voila! Lengthy and complex lists of items bog down respondents.

• Frequent text boxes cut both ways. It takes time for people to compose a message and type it in. On the other hand, because it allows them the freedom to express their views, they might stay more engaged longer.

• If your hosting software allows respondents to stop at any point and resume later, that can alleviate survey fatigue. My understanding is that free version of SurveyMonkey does not give that respite.

The best way to shorten the time of a survey, however, is to delete questions that add insufficient value. Avoid the lure of letting people think, “Oh, add it as the answers might be interesting….”. Participation rates are in a trade-off with the perceived length of the survey.

If you have too many questions you would like to ask, give thought to utilizing a two-phase survey. In other words, craft your first survey with questions that can be answered in a manageable few minutes. (NoviSurvey, for one, will tell you elapsed time spent by each respondent on the survey so you can estimate average times.) Once you have a report to send based on the first survey, invite the recipients to complete a shorter, second survey that asks additional questions. You will still have some drop-off in the second survey, but at least your invitees have manifested interest in the survey topic (they voted with their keyboard on the first phase). Compensation surveys and strategy surveys practically cry out for this dive-down approach.

The complexity of a question, the instructions that gloss it, or both together can hold up respondents. If they have to read a long question and decipher it, or wade through ostensibly clarifying instructions, they might just bag that tangled monster. Work the head too hard, and people vote with their feet.