Why the Screener Section of Your Survey Is Compromising Your Results

A strongly designed screener section will usher in the right people, exclude those who are unable to effectively answer the questions in the main body of the survey, provide valuable information about those who don’t qualify and help you better diagnose potential problems.


It’s always important to find the right person for the job. When we want a doctor’s opinion, we do our research and find the doctor with the right specialization. When we want a contractor’s opinion, we ask around for referrals to find one with the right skills.

It’s no different when it comes to running a survey; it’s just not as easy to identify all the right people before your survey hits the field. That’s why you need to build a screening section into every survey. You may have broadly targeted what seems to be the right group of people, but a well-designed screening section can do the fine-tuning required to find the right people.

Pitfalls of Poor Screener Sections

Just as poor screener sections can let the wrong people through, they can also prevent the right people from getting in. This is usually done with the best of intentions by maintaining strict qualification criteria to prevent the wrong entrants from taking the survey. However, the real world is messy and you must balance strict qualifications with an understanding of your target population.

Poor Screeners in Practice

Let’s assume you want to survey procurement decision-makers for a cybersecurity platform. Your target population is chief information security officers (CISOs), so you set up your screener section to only allow CISOs into your survey.

Not every company has a CISO. In many companies, the CIO or CTO carries this responsibility. Titles mean different things at different companies. You don’t need to solve for every possible outcome, but you should aim to capture 80% to 90% of potential possibilities.

Pro Tips for Designing Strong Screener Sections

Now that you know what not to do, here are some tips to structure your screener section in the right way. The goal is to use termination logic to remove respondents from the survey who don’t meet the qualification criteria. Incorrect responses will trigger a “Thank you for your participation, but you have not qualified” message. Each of the below steps will help accomplish that goal.

  • Mask the true survey topic as much as possible. This makes it harder to game the survey by clicking what are perceived to be the “right” answers. For instance, if you want to survey consumers of Folgers coffee, first ask what types of beverages they purchase for their household (milk, juice, coffee, energy drinks, etc.), then follow up with those who purchase coffee to ask what brands of coffee they purchase (Maxwell House, Folgers, Peet’s, Green Mountain, etc.). At no point will the respondent know the correct answer path that will gain them entry into the survey.
  • Avoid asking questions with “Yes”/“No” answer choices. Instead, offer a range of potential answers and allow the respondent to qualify by selecting the correct response. For example, instead of asking, “Are you a CISO?” you could ask, “What is your role?” and have CISO listed among four to five other roles. As in the example above, perhaps more than one answer can qualify.
  • Include one or two “red herring” responses. These are fake answer options designed to catch respondents who are either not paying attention or trying to choose options they perceive as more likely to qualify.
  • Start with the broadest questions and funnel down. Your screening section should terminate more respondents in each subsequent question. In this way, the information tells a sequential story that can more easily highlight where low response rates might be originating. Quickly diagnosing and adjusting for issues is critically important in surveys.
  • Be intentional and succinct. To reduce respondent fatigue, every question in your screener section should include termination logic. Make this section as brief as possible and include a comment at the end of the screener section to affirm that they have qualified for the survey.
  • Bonus tip: Use screeners to assess market share. If one of the objectives of your survey is to assess market penetration, your screener section can accomplish that. If you design your survey to be statistically representative, you can compare the number of terminated respondents to the number of qualified respondents to understand market penetration among the broader population.

By following these design principles, you can improve the quality of your data by ensuring the right people are taking your survey. And better data means better, more confident outcomes.

In our next article, we’ll discuss how to choose the right research methodology when running a survey.


Check out the other articles in our Survey Series:


About the Author

Will Mellor leads a team of accomplished project managers who serve financial services firms across North America. His team manages end-to-end survey delivery from first draft to final deliverable. Will is an expert on GLG’s internal membership and consumer populations, as well as survey design and research. Before coming to GLG, he was the VP of an economic consulting group, where he was responsible for designing economic impact models for clients in both the public and private sectors. Will has bachelor’s degrees in international business and finance and a master’s degree in applied economics.

If you have a question about GLG Surveys, contact us to speak with a member of our survey team.

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