Lessons from the 2021 Census

March 21st is Census Day in England and Wales this year.

If you’re writing your own market research survey there’s a lot you can learn from some of the approaches adopted by the Office of National Statistics in their massive undertaking of the 10-yearly census.

Here are my top tips for what you can embrace:

✔️ Keep the amount of text as short as possible

✔️ Ask about only one thing per question (i.e. not "What do you think about the value and quality of x")

✔️ Don't ask something that people cannot realistically know or remember (they'll just make it up or get frustrated):

✔️ Pilot your questionnaire. The ONS tested the Census over 4 years! You won't be able to do that, but try it out on colleagues or friends. Your question meaning may not be as clear as you think it is

✔️ Test your questionnaire on a range of devices (mobiles, laptops, tablets, different web browsers, assistive technologies)

✔️ Make the questionnaire easy to navigate. The Census has a hub page showing the sections available to answer and respondents' progress through them

✔️ Use technology to lower respondent effort through automatic question routing and pre-filling of known information

In 2011 the response rate for the census was 94%. Sadly, the rest of us are not in a position to impose a £1k fine for non-completion of our questionnaires, but by adopting some of the same approaches we can ensure that we get better responses and better data to guide our businesses.

Helpfully, the ONS publish in plentiful detail how they craft the survey and you can find out more about this here if you’d like to study the detail.

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