Guest Post: Why Less Is More For The Optimal Survey Length

Have you ever created an online survey and felt disappointed with the data you collected? Have you been asked to answer a survey and felt irritated with the questions?

A good survey should consider both your needs for data and the capabilities and experiences of the respondents. It should also collect complete, accurate and reliable data.

There is nothing worse than receiving an email at 5 p.m. asking you to complete a survey to be entered into a draw for an iPad or shopping voucher, yet you feel unmotivated to complete the survey due to its look and feel. And if you are like me, you’ve never won any of those online survey prizes!

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So what do we know about the science of surveys?

It’s no secret that the connection between the number of questions in a survey and the time spent answering each question is not linear. The more questions you ask, the less time your respondents spend, on average, answering each question. In other words, the more answers you wish to find out from your participants, the more likely they will “speed” through it, and the quality and reliability of your data can suffer:

optimal survey length

As you can see from the table above, participants on average took 75 seconds to answer one question in a single question survey. However, for a 26 question survey they spent about 19 seconds per question.

In essence, the longer the survey, the less time participants will interact and think about each question on its own merit.

Can we assume longer surveys contain less thorough answers?

Not always, it depends on the type of survey, the audience, the participant-surveyor relationship, and the participant’s motivation.

In addition to the decreased time spent answering each question as surveys grow in length, survey abandon rates (participants who quit the survey before completing) increase for those that take more than 8 minutes to complete. Completion rates dropped anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent. It’s worth noting, however, that the patience for lengthier surveys is greater for those within the education and business sector, but decreases for customers.

What this means for you?

Take survey completion time into consideration as you design your next survey. Make sure you’re balancing your participants survey goals with the total number of questions you’re asking, so you can get the best data possible for the decisions you need to make. And if you do write a survey that has a low response rate, keep sending it to more recipients to increase the rate.

The next time you are using a survey tool, think:

  • Would you fully complete the survey?
  • What is motivating you to complete the survey?
  • Why do you want to quit the survey? Is it the nature of the questions, when it was sent, or the length?




Jake Pryszlak
Jake is a research consultant who conducts both quantitative and qualitative research with children and young people, adults and individuals with disabilities. He is also a frequent guest blogger and product reviewer for a range of survey and market research tools.