Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version

Summer 2009


Public Opinion Quarterly 73:2 (Summer 2009), pp. 325–337.

doi: 10.1093/poq/nfp029


Copyright © 2009 Jolene D. Smyth, Don A. Dillman, Leah Melani Christian, and Mallory McBride. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Used by permission.


Previous research has revealed techniques to improve response quality in open-ended questions in both paper and interviewer-administered survey modes. The purpose of this paper is to test the effectiveness of similar techniques in web surveys. Using data from a series of three random sample web surveys of Washington State University undergraduates, we examine the effects of visual and verbal answer-box manipulations (i.e., altering the size of the answer box and including an explanation that answers could exceed the size of the box) and the inclusion of clarifying and motivating introductions in the question stem. We gauge response quality by the amount and type of information contained in responses as well as response time and item nonresponse. The results indicate that increasing the size of the answer box has little effect on early responders to the survey but substantially improved response quality among late responders. Including any sort of explanation or introduction that made response quality and length salient also improved response quality for both early and late responders. In addition to discussing these techniques, we also address the potential of the web survey mode to revitalize the use of open-ended questions in self-administered surveys.