Taking the 2020 U.S. Census as a Market Research Professional

It’s National Census Day (April 1st) as I’m sitting down to write this blog post, so what better topic to cover than the 2020 U.S. Census? I received the notification in the mail a few weeks ago to take the government-mandated survey. 

The U.S. Census is unique in that it is a form of market research that just about everyone in the country is familiar with. According to the official 2020 Census website, the data helps to determine congressional representation, inform hundreds of billions in federal funding, and supply data for communities across the country. 

As I answered the questions via the online link they provided in the letter, I naturally began thinking about the experience with a market research lens. In the rest of this post, I will share some of my thoughts on the U.S. Census online survey experience using my market research background.

Did you know U.S. Census data can be used for competitive assessments? Read more here about how Census data can be used for secondary research once it has all been collected.

taking the 2020 us census as a market researcher

The 2020 U.S. Census is almost flawless as far as market research standards go. Here are some of my thoughts as a research professional as I took the survey for myself. ​


Accessing the Survey 

It might not surprise you to hear that I found the U.S. Census process to be incredibly well-thought-out. This questionnaire has a decade to be perfected before the next iteration and it shows. 

It was about as intuitive as it gets for accessing the survey. The mailed letter had a short URL that I typed into my computer. It is worth noting that the website was also optimized for mobile. From there, I entered a 12-digit code unique to my residence. Below is a screenshot of the first screen of the questionnaire.

2020 census

A FAQ section and several specific helpful links were posted around the web page. These are a great way to assist survey respondents who get stuck or question the purpose of the survey.


Answering the Questions

When I started running through the questionnaire, it was hard to criticize any decisions that were made for the respondent experience. However, there were a few thoughts that came into my head during the survey.

One of the oddities I noticed was some radio button and checkbox questions had their answer options each ending with a question mark rather than the main question text (see below). This might just be something I’ve missed during my time so far in market research, but I found it slightly redundant.

2020 census question

Another nit-pick I had as a researcher was being able to enter text in open-ended boxes without first checking the respective box.

It appeared you could type an answer into a text box and continue to the next screen without confirmation that the option was selected.

It’s very possible that the option was coded on the back end but it’s always a good idea to give feedback confirmation to respondents.

I was also puzzled to see there were also a couple of open-ended questions (example below). Dealing with unstructured text data at the scale of the entire U.S. population seemed like it would be overwhelming for any sort of analysis.

I’m very curious about how open-end answers are used for this reason. My best guess is the U.S. government has a text-analysis software that recognizes respondent answers and automatically codes them into more useable data.

census 2020 open ended question

Lastly, I can sometimes be a stickler for having exhaustive answer lists in online surveys.

For the question in the Census asking about the respondent’s relationships to other household members, "grandparent" was noticeably missing from the list. For context, this is an extensive list (shown below) that even includes an option for “grandchild.” Obviously, “grandparent” could fall under “other relative” but I thought it stuck out.

census 2020 question mark one


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