Your grid questions probably aren’t working

Convincing people to participate in surveys and polls has become so challenging that more attention is going toward preventing them from suspending once they choose to respond.

Most survey suspends occur in one of two places. The first is at the initial screen the respondent sees. Respondents click through an invitation, and many quickly decide that the survey isn’t for them and abandon the effort.

The second most common place is the first grid question respondents encounter. They see an imposing grid question and decide it isn’t worth their time to continue. It doesn’t matter where this question is placed – this happens whether the first grid question is early in the questionnaire, in the middle, or toward the end.

Respondents hate answering grid questions. Yet clients continue to ask them, and survey researchers include them without much thought. The quality of data they yield tends to be low.

A measurement error issue with grid questions is known as “response set bias.” When we present a list of, say, ten items, we want to get a respondent to make an independent judgment of each, unrelated to what they think of the others. But, with a long list of items, that is not what happens. Instead, when people respond to later questions, they remember what they said earlier. If I indicated that feature A in a list was “somewhat important” to me when I assess feature B, it is natural to think about how it compares in importance to feature A. This introduces unwanted correlations into the data set.

Instead, we want a respondent to assess feature A, clear their mind entirely, and then assess feature B. That is a challenging task, but placing features on a long, intimidating list, makes it near impossible. Some researchers think we eliminate this error by randomizing the list order, but all that does is spread the error out. It is important to randomize the options so this error doesn’t concentrate on just a few items, but randomization does not solve the problem.

Errors you have probably heard of lurk in long grid questions. Things like fatigue biases (respondents attend less to the items late in the list), question order biases, priming effects, recency biases, etc. In short, grid questions are just asking for many measurement errors, and we end up crossing our fingers and hoping some of these cancel each other out.

This is admittedly a mundane topic, but it is the one questionnaire design issue I have the most difficulty convincing clients to do something about. Grid questions capture a lot of data in a short amount of questionnaire time, so they are enticing for clients.

I prefer a world where we seldom ask them. If we need to, we recommend maybe one or two per questionnaire and never more than 4 to 6 items in them. I rarely succeed in convincing clients of this.

“Textbook” explanations of problems with grid questions do not include the issue that bothers me most. What happens in grid questions is the question respondents hear and respond to is often not the literal question that is composed.

Consider a grid question like this, with a 5-point importance scale as the response options:

Q: How important were the following when you decided to buy the widget?

  1. The widget brand cares about sustainability
  2. The price of the widget
  3. The color of the widget is attractive to you
  4. The widget will last a long time

Think about the first item (“The widget brand cares about sustainability”). The client wants to understand how important sustainability is in the buying decision. How important of a buying criterion is sustainability?

But that is likely not what the respondent “hears” in the question. The respondent will probably see the question as asking if they care about sustainability and who doesn’t? So, what would tend to happen is sustainability would be overstated as a decision driver when analyzing the data set. Respondents don’t leap to thinking about sustainability as a buying consideration; instead, they respond about sustainability in general.

Clients and suppliers must realize that respondents do not parse our words as we would like them to, and they do not always attend to our questions. We need to anticipate this.

How do we fix this issue?  We should be more straightforward in how we ask questions. In this example, I would prefer to derive the importance of sustainability in the buying decision. I’d include a question asking how much they care about sustainability (and be careful to phrase it so it can have a response across various answer choices).  Then, in a second question, I would gather a dependent variable asking how likely they are to buy the widget in the future.

A regression or correlation analysis would provide coefficients across variables that indicate their relative importance. Yes, it would be based on correlations and not necessarily causation. In reality, research studies rarely set up the experiments necessary to give evidence of causation, and we should not get too hung up on that.

I would conclude that sustainability is an essential feature if it popped in the regression as having a high coefficient and if I saw something else in other questions or open-ends that indicated sustainability mattered from another angle. Always look for another data point or another data source that supports your conclusion.

Grid questions are the most over-rated and overused types of survey questions. Clients like them, but they tend to provide poor-quality data. Use them sparingly and look for alternatives.

1 Response to “<strong>Your grid questions probably aren’t working</strong>”


  1. 1 Betti October 13, 2022 at 7:09 pm

    Excellent analysis. Questionnaire design is critical and the part of research that does not get enough attention. You should be teaching research methods John!


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