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6 tips for creating more inclusive surveys

Surveys are stronger when they’re inclusive. These guiding principles will help you ask better questions and design more inclusive surveys.

By Abigail Matsumoto, copywriter

Published November 20, 2020
Last updated November 24, 2020

Now more than ever inclusion is a measure of workplace culture and inequality across industries. But what does it mean in the context of survey creation?

From the language to the respondent experience, the best surveys are built to be inclusive. In a broad sense, this means surveying with empathy, respect, and clear motives. You create an inclusive survey when you’re thoughtful about how you ask respondents about things like religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Or when you plan respondents’ journey through your survey and consider why or when they might feel excluded. These simple acts make a big difference, and they help survey creators get in the habit of thinking inclusively.

While there isn’t a set formula for creating an inclusive survey, there are some general principles you can keep in mind. Here are a few tips that will give you a baseline for creating inclusive surveys.

Be mindful about your demographic questions

Demographic questions focus on the identities of your respondents (such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and income), and including them in your surveys can help you get a clearer understanding of your audience.

But these questions, especially when they relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion, can feel personal. That doesn’t mean you should be afraid of asking them—but it does mean that you should be clear about why you’re asking and how you’ll use that data. Knowing this will help you create better questions that are driven by intention.

For example, let’s say you’re inspired to use this yes or no question from the Gallup tracking survey: “Do you personally identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” This might get you an overall estimate of LGBTQ individuals. However, the question doesn’t take into account the percent of individuals who identify as both straight and transgender. If your goal is to use that kind of specific data to understand the nuances of your respondents’ identities, you’ll need to be more inclusive in how you ask this type of question.

Another way to make demographic questions feel inclusive is to include a fill-in-the-blank answer. When you’re asking about religious, racial, or gender identities, there’s always the risk that your respondents will fail to see themselves reflected in the answer options that you suggest. Including an option where they can write it in themselves will give them a better opportunity to be “seen” and might even give you ideas for future surveys.

Be upfront about why you’re asking demographic questions

While some respondents may not hesitate to answer demographic questions, others will feel more comfortable sharing that information if they understand what your motivations are and how their responses will be used. This can be accomplished with a simple survey introduction that explains your survey’s topic and purpose.

Context is key. A bookstore asking its survey respondents’ about their sexual orientation or gender identity may have an easier time if there is some indication that that data will be used to stock merchandise that’s relevant to its customers or to plan community programming.

Don’t require answers to all your questions

We found that 27 percent of respondents say that not being able to skip a question is enough to make them quit a survey completely. If a lot of people quit, you’ll end up with less data—and that data is likely to be more homogeneous and less valuable.

Rather than requiring all your survey questions, give respondents the power to skip questions that make them feel uncomfortable. This will not only respect their boundaries, it will also keep them engaged and decrease the chance of survey fatigue.

Use skip logic

Another useful survey setting is skip logic, which allows you to send respondents to a certain question or page based on how they answer a certain question. In general, using skip logic makes your surveys stronger because it prevents respondents from seeing questions that don’t apply to them.

How does this connect to inclusive survey design? Well, consider a survey that asks respondents for their religious affiliation. If a respondent selects “no religion” and then is asked about Christmas traditions or how often they attend church, they may feel that their answer isn’t welcome or that they are not a valued part of your audience. Encountering irrelevant survey questions is frustrating, so they also might be tempted to quit your survey altogether.

The beauty of skip logic is that you can use it to tailor the survey experience for your respondents and develop a deeper understanding of their backgrounds and experiences.

Be conscious of language

Words are powerful and the words and phrasing you use in your survey questions can inadvertently exclude, offend, or marginalize certain people. To avoid this, it’s important for your survey questions to reflect inclusive language. The Linguistic Society of America describes this as language that “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.”

So what does that mean in practice? Here are a few things you can do to make sure your survey language is inclusive:

Consider the context, history, and meaning of your language

Sometimes we toss off common words and phrases without fully understanding how they’re perceived. For example, an insurance company surveying its customers about the “grandfather clause” that will affect their memberships might not realize that that term is actually rooted in racism.

Be on the lookout for words or phrases that could carry unintended connotations so you can swap them out for better, more specific wording. You’ll also want to avoid slang, idioms, or words that might have different meanings to different groups.

Don’t define what’s “normal”

As you write survey questions, be careful not to center certain ideas or identities as “normal.” This includes trying to avoid the “generic he,” which is when we use male words or pronouns as a “neutral” way to communicate. For example, asking respondents about their primary care doctor and whether he creates a welcoming environment.

Another example might be assuming that your audience went to college, has a job, or owns a house— privileges that don’t apply to everyone. It's always a good idea to read over your survey questions with an objective eye. (For more on using non-sexist language, check out the guidelines from The American Philosophical Association.)

Take advantage of expert resources

If there’s something you want to ask but you’re not sure how to phrase it, it never hurts to consult resources like the Conscious Style Guide or Racial Equity Resource Guide. Zendesk writes about why gendered language matters so much in customer service. And SurveyMonkey’s question bank is full of expert-written questions that cover a variety of tricky topics, including race and religious affiliation.

Using these vetted questions means that you don’t need to stress about the perfect way to approach sensitive or personal topics in your survey. They’re designed to be objective and to use familiar language that feels natural rather than nosy.

Design your survey with accessibility in mind

Write for accessibility by keeping your questions clear and concise. If there is information that only comes across by looking at an image, try to include some context in the text of the question. If you’re using colors and design to customize your survey, make sure your color contrasts are readable and try to keep your design as inclusive as possible.

We support anyone who wants to create more inclusive surveys and we’re dedicated to providing the tools so you can do just that. These tips aren’t exhaustive, but they make a good foundation to boost your survey game and prioritize inclusion in all your survey goals.

Looking for more ways to make inclusion part of your day-to-day business? Check out SurveyMonkey’s Diversity & Inclusion Guide and racial equity resources for templates, tips, discounts, and more.