Where Should I Put that “Overall” Question? or Question Order Bias

Z's passion is learning and teaching others best practices and new trends in market research (MR), from writing the best questionnaire possible to crafting a story that will resonate with stakeholders. Follow her musings on the MR industry on Twitter (@zontziry).

We’ve talked in the past about what questions you might want to consider including in your surveys. We’ve told you about things to avoid when putting together customer feedback surveys. And we’ve discussed some bias that can be involved when employees administer a customer satisfaction survey incorrectly.

With this post, we’re going to dive into one of many oft-discussed market research questions: Where should the “overall” question go in a survey? Should it be first or last? This question applies to a wide variety of survey subjects: customer satisfaction, employee engagement, product evaluation, event evaluation, website design evaluation…just about any survey on any subject eventually seems to include some type of summary, overall rating question.

To give you an idea of how long this item has been researched, I found an article from 1975 in  The Public Opinion Quarterly, a journal published by the American Association for Public Opinion Research. This article referred to research conducted in 1959 on the topic of “Questionnaire Construction and Interview Procedure.” In 55 years, the answer hasn’t really changed: how you order your questions depends on what you want to get from the respondent.

The Argument for Placing It First

Putting the overall question first does a few things. First, according to the research, it can actually act as an anchor by which a respondent answers the rest of the questions. So, if we ask an overall question first and get that knee-jerk reaction from a respondent that might be given if asked about their experience by a friend, as they take the rest of the survey, they tend to adjust their following answers to match the answer to the overall question. This is great for the researcher if the answer to that overall question is positive; this isn’t great if that answer is negative.

When should you put the overall question first? When you want to know how your audience would be answering their friends or colleagues when asked about their experience.

The Argument for Placing It Last

So, what about putting the overall question last? According to another research article from 2003, “Order Effects in Customer Satisfaction Modelling,” from the Journal of Marketing Management, “…customers’ overall evaluations are more extreme and better explained when provided after attribute evaluations.” By asking the specifics before asking the overall question, respondents will be thinking more about how the specifics add up to their overall level of satisfaction. Arguably, this could mean they are giving a more thought-out answer to that overall question.

When should you put the overall question last? When you want your audience to remember various aspects of their experience and give a more thoughtful response. You may also want to consider placing it last if your respondents will be answering awhile after the experience you’re asking them about. That way, you can remind them of the particulars about the experience before asking them to give their overall impression.

Still not sure where to put that overall question? Why not place it both at the beginning, and then at the end? That way, you’re capturing both the initial impression and the impression they are left with after reminding them of the particulars.

What have been your experiences with where you’ve placed the overall question? Do you tend to place it more at the beginning or at the end of your survey? Have you tried changing where you placed it, or how you worded the question, to see if it affected results? We’d love to hear from you!