Sleeping at desk 2

How to fight cognitive fatigue in research surveys

I’m sure many researchers will agree when I say keeping respondents engaged within a survey is easier said than done. This is unsurprising when you discover that the average attention span of an adult is only 20 minutes.

Recently, I listened to a webinar by Pete Cape (Global Knowledge Director, SSI*)  who reinforced the potential negative impact longer surveys can have on both response rates and data quality. The webinar highlighted some innovative approaches to fight survey fatigue by reducing survey length.

If you were asked where you consider the highest percentage of dropout rates to occur in a survey, what would your answer be? I would’ve guessed “at the beginning” but that isn’t the case.

Research shows that there is usually a smooth progression of drop outs (highest at 20 minutes!) highlighting the fact that surveys need to engage from start to finish.

Response vs time of survey graph

Survey length can be reduced in two ways. Firstly by shortening the length of the survey:

  1. Automatically pre-populating respondents profile information, with the pre-existing data provided (including demographics, geographical location)
  2. Asking yourself whether each question can provide you with meaningful insight, and if not removing it.
  3. Has a question been on a tracker study for an extended period of time? Has the data changed frequently or remained unchanged? If unchanged, is this question really necessary?
  4. Do some of your questions have similar attributes to other questions within the survey? Do you need them all?

Secondly, a questionnaire can be shortened by reducing the perceived length:

  1. Separate the survey into different sections, perhaps by topic area. Ask the respondent’s willingness to continue with the survey at the end of each section. The time in-between each section will allow the respondent the opportunity to have a “mental break” and refocus their thoughts. (Research suggests that this is a proven method of increasing full survey participation.)
  2. Using elements of gamification to add variety and peak respondent’s interest. Examples include the use of infographics, videos, or perhaps competition based questions including guessing challenges or scenario creation.
  3. Creating an on-going personal dialogue with the respondent throughout the survey;
  • Using text substitutions in questions based on respondents’ previous answers
  • Personalising the “instructions” pages, picking out key elements the respondent has previously found particularly interesting or not (!) within the survey so far.
  • Emphasising it is important to the brand/company to gather a wide spectrum of views and that every respondent’s answer will add value. 

If you’re looking for some guidance on questionnaire creation, why not get in touch? Call us on 0121 643 909 or by email,

By Amelia Cornish, Research Executive 

*Source Webinar “Questionnaire Length and Fatigue Effects – What 10 Years Have Taught Us” by Pete Cape (Global Knowledge Director, SSI) on behalf of ESOMAR.


This entry was posted in Surveys, tagged Communication, Gamefication, Infographic, Engagement and posted on June 10, 2015

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