Demographic data collection can be somewhat intimidating. The desire to be sensitive to a diverse population can often conflict with a researcher’s need to segment their data.
And there’s nothing more disheartening than completing a survey project and realizing that you omitted key demographic questions that would have given you a deeper understanding of your data.
To avoid experiencing this sinking feeling, consider including at least a few demographic questions regardless of your survey’s subject matter.
If you’re not sure how to phrase demographic survey questions, have no fear.
Each section below includes examples that you can copy and paste into your next survey so you can collect data with confidence.
Your Goals Guide Your Demographic Questions
Before we jump right into crafting these questions, I want to remind you that each and every survey question should be mapped back to your larger survey goals.
Consider what you hope to do with your data, and be sure that even your demographic choices roll back up to that objective.
That means that you probably don’t need to include each and every question that we’re going to cover in this article. If, for example, you’re surveying college students, questions about education, household income, and marital status are unlikely to be relevant.
Demographic questions cover some sensitive topics; be thoughtful about which ones belong in your survey.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s tackle the questions themselves.
Writing Better Age-Related Demographic Questions
Your first consideration when writing a demographic survey question to collect age data is how granular you need to get with your final data.
This should be structured as a radio button question, but you can choose the age ranges that you provide in each option.
For example, these answer options encompass a pretty broad range of ages:
What is your age?
- Under 18
- 18-24 years old
- 25-34 years old
- 35-44 years old
- 45-54 years old
If your research calls for more specific age data, you can offer smaller ranges:
What is your age?
- 18-21 years old
- 22-25 years old
- 26-29 years old
When possible, go for the larger ranges; the shorter list of options will reduce your respondents’ survey fatigue.
Also note that we’re avoiding overlapping ranges in our answer options, meaning that the same age doesn’t fall into two answers (for more on that problem check out this article).
Another option is to simply ask your respondents for the year in which they were born using a text box question. (If you go with this question type, be sure to include data validation to ensure real years are entered.)
How to Ask Demographic Questions About Race and Ethnicity
If you choose to include this type of question, be sure to ask about race and ethnicity separately. Race refers to a population’s physical characteristics, while ethnicity refers to groups that share a sense of identity, history, cultural roots, and, oftentimes, geography.
Follow the lead set by the U.S. Census Bureau and other government institutions when using this demographic question. First ask, “Are you of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?” (ethnicity), followed by a race identification question like, “How would you describe yourself?”
The first question can be a simple Yes/No radio button; the second should include these commonly accepted options:
- American Indian or Alaska Native
- Black or African American
- Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
Stick with a checkbox question for this one so that respondents can choose multiple options if they identify as a member of multiple races. Including an open text box at the end of the question will allow for write-in options too.
Even these common distinctions can be confusing for respondents, and the Census Bureau is experimenting with new question wording that eliminates all mention of “race” and “origin” (read more about these efforts here). So if you’re looking for a demographic question to cut, this one should be at the top of your list.
Surveying Your Respondents With Questions for Sex and Gender
Like questions about race and ethnicity, demographic questions about sex and gender should be respectful and nuanced.
We’ve covered this topic in depth elsewhere on the SurveyGizmo blog, but these are the two best ways to balance the demands of data collection with respect of your respondents’ diverse experiences:
1. Completely Open Ended Question:
You'll have to do some open text analysis on these responses, but it makes it very easy for people to choose their own category.
2. Options for Cross Tabulation
If you know you need this data in set categories to aid in data analysis, you can still create respectful categories without overwhelming respondents.
We suggest a radio button question like this (although what works for your particular audience may differ slightly):
Note that the best way to phrase this question is something like, "To which gender identity do you most identify?" rather than simply, "Gender."
The Best Way to Ask Marital Status Demographics
The options for this question may seem less nebulous than questions about racial or sexual identity, but romantic relationships are often deeply complicated. Like race and ethnicity, consider carefully whether someone’s marital status really matters to your final survey goals before including this question.
If you do want to segment based on this data, the best practice is to phrase the question as follows:
What is your marital status?
- Single (never married)
- Married, or in a domestic partnership
Asking Respondents for Education Demographic Information
When asking about educational achievement, think about whether or not you’re likely to have a large percentage of students responding to your survey. If you anticipate that many respondents will still be in school, be sure to include instructions that cover that situation.
What is the highest degree or level of school you have completed? (If you’re currently enrolled in school, please indicate the highest degree you have received.)
- Less than a high school diploma
- High school degree or equivalent (e.g. GED)
- Some college, no degree
- Associate degree (e.g. AA, AS)
- Bachelor’s degree (e.g. BA, BS)
- Master’s degree (e.g. MA, MS, MEd)
- Professional degree (e.g. MD, DDS, DVM)
- Doctorate (e.g. PhD, EdD)
Collecting Demographic Data on Employment Information
Employment information can be broken down into multiple different questions that cover employment status, hours worked, employer type, and professional status, but the most commonly asked question is simply whether or not someone is employed.
As with most other demographic questions, think about how you plan to use these data points before adding them in.
If it will be helpful in your final analysis, this is a common way of phrasing this question:
What is your current employment status?
- Employed full time (40 or more hours per week)
- Employed part time (up to 39 hours per week)
- Unemployed and currently looking for work
- Unemployed and not currently looking for work
- Unable to work
For those who indicate that they are employed, you can use survey logic to display follow-up questions about their jobs if you’re interested in gathering additional details about their professional life.
Measuring Household Income With Demographic Data
As with demographic questions about age, consider how granular you need your response data from this question to be. The fewer response options you give, the less you’ll fatigue your respondents, so keep it as short as possible.
Common ranges for this question are:
- Less than $20,000
- $20,000 to $34,999
- $35,000 to $49,999
- $50,000 to $74,999
- $75,000 to $99,999
- Over $100,000
I do want to point out once again that the ranges for these answer responses don’t overlap, so there’s no confusion about which response is appropriate.
Finally, consider your respondents when selecting an upper and lower limit to these response options. Students aren’t likely to be bringing in anywhere close to $20,000 per year; if you’re surveying a particularly affluent population you might miss some insight by not breaking out more choices above $150,000 per year.
Demographic Survey Questions Don’t Have to Be Scary
Being able to cross-tabulate and segment your final data based on demographic data can provide amazing insight, but throwing too many demographic questions at your audience can overwhelm (and possibly insult) them.
But if you keep your survey goals in mind at all times and follow these best practices for phrasing the questions you choose to include, and everybody can walk away happy.
Andrea Fryrear is the chief content officer for Fox Content, where she uses agile content marketing principles to drive content strategy and implementation for her clients. She also writes for and edits The Agile Marketer, a community of marketers on the front lines of the agile marketing transformation. She geeks out on all things agile and content on LinkedIn and Twitter.