Use Multiple Text Boxes for More Productive Respondents

Novelist writing a book on a typewriter

A perennial problem with open-ended survey questions is that respondents are lazy. It takes time and effort to think of good answers. And if the survey is self-administered online or on paper, it takes time and effort to write them out.

But there are several things a savvy researcher can do. One of them is to think carefully about answer box formats. If you want respondents to tell you three things they like about your ad concept, then give them three answer boxes. If you want them to list all brands in a category that come to mind, give them ten short boxes, not just one big box.


This bit of savvy advice is based on a recently published article in the Journal of Survey Statistics and Methodology.  The research found that “respondents use cues from the answer box format of list-style open-ended questions to infer what the questionnaire designer expects from them as appropriate answers.”

More specifically, the research found that on brand awareness questions, if  you offer multiple small boxes instead of one big box:

  1. Respondents will spend more time on the task
  2. Respondents will name more brands
  3. Respondents will name more lesser-known brands

This is a simple technique you can implement to encourage your survey respondents to give more.  There are other techniques you can use as well; see our blog for some of them.

Joe Hopper, Ph.D., is president of Versta Research, which provides customized marketing research. He was formerly on the faculty at the University of Chicago and National Opinion. Research Center (NORC).



  1. Annie Pettit says:

    I’ve encountered the same issue and have done things such as revising my questions to specify how many information I’d like to receive from respondents. For instance, “Please tell me three reasons why you….” This has helped me a lot.

    But apart from that, the statement that “respondents are lazy” bothers me. People who take ten or thirty or sixty minutes out of their lives, to answer boring and unclear questions that bear no obvious relevance to their real lives, and who get paid 15 cents in return, are not lazy. They are freely giving us precious and valuable time out of their day to complete a foreign task. Let’s be more appreciative.

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