Should You Use a Progress Bar? | Online Survey Firm Syracuse

June 27, 2016

A standard item you see on most online survey platforms is the progress bar. It typically sits in one of the corners of the survey and informs you (as the respondent) where you stand in-between the start and the finish line. Programmers and survey writers alike accept these progress bars as standard for online surveys assuming they help participation rates by being transparent with the respondent to virtually say "you are 70% complete". However, are progress bars in online surveys more harmful than helpful in market research?

An article in Sage Journals attempted to tackle that question through, what else but market research. The hypothesis for a market research analyst using a progress bar in a survey is: "if I use a progress bar, I will reduce the number of drop-outs."


The City University of London, Google UK, and Gallup teamed up to test this hypothesis and identified three types of progress bars: (1) slow to fast, where a respondent's progress is shown in very small increments in the beginning of the survey but the increments grow as the survey moves on, (2) constant, where the increments remain the same from start to finish, and (3) fast to slow, where the progress is shown in large increments in the beginning but slows after time.


The constant progress bar is probably the most common in online survey work, but the study showed that using it did not significantly reduce the number of drop-outs. Fast to slow progress bars decreased the number of drop-outs while slow to fast increased the number of drop-outs. So clearly, simply adding a progress bar does not necessarily mean you will increase participation rates and reduce drop-outs, and if you do need to use one - choose a fast to slow progress bar.

The psychology behind this study is intriguing. As an online survey company in Syracuse, Drive Research has thought about progress bars often. By including them in our online surveys are we helping or hurting participation. We've assumed a respondent would see the progress bar and begin to think about time to complete - for example, "this question is taking too long", "this survey is taking too long", "I'm only 30% complete?" Sometimes we feel calling attention to a barrier in survey work stimulates a thought that may not have preexisted, where otherwise it would have not impacted likelihood to continue.


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