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Usability Testing Results Evaluating the Decennial Census Race and Hispanic Origin Questions Throughout the Decade: 2012-2020

Working Paper Number rsm2020-02
Erica L. Olmsted-Hawala, Elizabeth M. Nichols


The decennial census questionnaire includes basic demographic questions about each person living in a household. Until 2010, the questionnaire had been on paper. Soon after 2010, the Census Bureau began planning for an online 2020 census questionnaire. In anticipation of that, there were multiple field tests of the online decennial form, and before each field test, there was usability testing. Usability testing involved a small number of participants pretesting the online questionnaire prior to the larger field tests. The sessions were one-on-one where each participant was asked to fill out the online questionnaire with answers that pertained to their real lives, while being observed by a researcher. The usability team assessed how the questions and the interface design worked with respect to that task.

Across the different decennial tests, the Census Bureau researched whether there were more effective ways to word and display the various questions and response options in the online survey. The usability team was interested in how the modifications to the questions, including wording of questions, instructions, response options and edit messages, as well as the layout of the questions on the screens, impacted question comprehension and the resulting answers real users gave.

This report shares the usability findings of the race and Hispanic origin questions across all rounds of the English language usability testing. One of the recurring findings was that combining the race and Hispanic Origin topics into one question was less confusing for participants than when those two topics were collected as separate questions on separate screens. Another recurring finding was how confusing and difficult it was to collect consistent detailed origin information, regardless of design. The third consistent finding was how the text used for this topic (whether in the question, in the instructions, or in the edit message) did not seem to have a great effect on how participants understood and answered these topics. While not all of the recommendations from the usability testing made it into the final version that was used on the 2020 Census questionnaire, this research provides a starting point for designing the race and Hispanic origin question for the next census.


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