Questions I Hate on Surveys: A Continuing Series

April 15, 2013

Survey methodology

I spend a lot of time on the Internet, as you probably do as well. It is there in the background when I am working, it is in my pocket when I am walking, it is playing music in the kitchen as I prepare dinner, and it is sending me alarms and notices. When I am working, my documents are even being synchronized with my cloud services. So, how am I supposed to answer a questions such as “How much time do you spend using the Internet in an average day?” Usually the question asks for the time in hours and minutes.

Sometime in the last ten years, the Internet evolved from something that could be thought of  as a task (viewing a website) to an integral part of other tasks, which makes the question virtually impossible to answer unless it is meant as a measure of Internet browsing. And, if that is the case, maybe we should just ask that question.

To be fair, the reason for the question is pretty obvious. It is a measure of a number of important dimensions: use of technology, engagement with the broader world, and time spent without in-person social interaction. And while it is possible to measure these with Likert scales they lack the time-based scale that gives Internet use questions their perceived power (e.g. they can be compared to the time spent with family, time spent watching tv, etc.). Of course, the fact is that the scale is not reliable and the question lacks meaning.

It is time to retire the question. How the Internet is used and how important it is to other activities are much more useful questions. The fact is that when a person is using the Internet they are always engaged in some specific activity — when a person is spending time on Facebook it is not the Internet that is the most important element of what they are doing.

“How much time do you spend using the Internet?”  suffers from being imprecise for respondents and lacks a clear conceptual purpose. When you ask about time, make sure that it is something that can be measured in a discrete sense.

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About Richard Jenkins

Market research professional and small business owner

View all posts by Richard Jenkins

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