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Cognitive and Motivational Properties of Three Proposed Decennial Census Forms

Don A Dillman, Cleo Jenkins, Betsy Martin, and Theresa DeMaio

KEY WORDS: Respondent friendly questionnaire design, cognitive interviews, marketing strategy, response errors, graphical design, navigation, 2000 census mailing package


Three decennial mail short form questionnaires proposed for possible use in the 2000 census were evaluated to determine whether respondents understood the questions and answered them correctly, the ease with which they navigated the forms, and their opinions on whether each form should or should not be used in the 2000 census

A total of 55 interviews was conducted in 1996 in the Pullman, Washington, area and in the Washington D.C. area with people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and different educational levels. Volunteers were paid a modest honorarium to fill out each of the questionnaires and report their reactions, either concurrently (using think-aloud interview methods) or retrospectively. All respondents were asked standard debriefing questions. Forms were administered in one of two different orders to control for order effects.

The design of form A was based on the survey methods research literature, while the designs of forms B and C were developed by an outside contractor based on marketing concepts and innovative graphical designs.

All three forms had qualities perceived as positive by respondents, with none of the three singled out for overwhelming acceptance or rejection. Form C was more likely to be perceived as junk mail, while Form A was more likely to be perceived as mail from the government.

Most respondents read the cover letters and found them to be an important source of information.

Used properly, color is an effective navigational guide. White spaces within a colored field worked well as visual cues to denote answer spaces.

A clear conclusion is that any use of the questionnaire as a census marketing tool must be designed carefully not to undermine the authority and official look of the census form. Color and graphics must be used with caution, particularly on the envelope.


Don A Dillman, Cleo Jenkins, Betsy Martin, and Theresa DeMaio. 1996. Cognitive and Motivational Properties of Three Proposed Decennial Census Forms. Study Series (Survey Methodology #2006-4).

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Research Division

Created: August 9, 2006
Last revised: August 9, 2006

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Statistical Research Division | (301) 763-3215 (or |   Last Revised: October 08, 2010