Chapter 2 Sample: Decide how many people to ask and how to find them

Chapter 2 is about turning the ‘defined group of people’ you want to ask into the people you actually ask – your sample.

The topics in the chapter are:

  • Some of the people you ask will decide not to answer
  • Response rates vary by the way you deliver your questionnaire
  • Response depends on trust, effort, and reward
  • Decide how many answers you need
  • Find the people who you want to ask
  • The right response is better than a big response

The errors associated with this chapter are:

  • Coverage error, which happens when the list that you sample from includes some people who are outside the defined group that you want to ask or excludes some people who are in it.
  • Sampling error, which happens when you choose to ask some of the people rather than everyone.
  • Non-response error, which happens when the people who respond are different from the people who don’t respond in ways that affect the result of the survey.

I couldn’t give all the appropriate origins and suggestions for further reading in the chapter, so here they are.

I found various sources of data on response rates

In the book, I published my own rules of thumb about typical response rates. Here are some sources that I found that helped me to create those rules.

NSIs can get response rates over 65%

Nearly every country in the world has a national statistical institute (NSI) and many of them are great at publishing their response rates. I’ve chosen three countries here: USA, Netherland and Australia.

So far as I’ve been able to find out, the US is the only country that has lots of them, of which two of the best-known are the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau. The Census Bureau publishes response rates for its surveys. For example:

Statistics Netherlands publishes many of its reports in English. They say that they typically get response rates about 65% in this report:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics managed to improve its response rates between the 2006 and 2011 Censuses, bucking the general trend of declining response rates. They got over 95% response (non-response under 5%) in all states and territories other than Northern Territories – an area with few roads, and a relatively high proportion of indigenous people who may move around – where they still managed to get over 92% response (non-response under 8%):

Some academic surveys can get high response rates

One of the biggest academic surveys is the European Social Survey which “measures the attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns of diverse populations in more than thirty nations”. It is run by a consortium of academic institutes and universities. The 2016 response rates varied from 31% in Germany to 74% in Israel. You can find all the data sets starting in 2002 on their website:

It is harder to find response rates for other surveys

The other estimates that I have quoted in the chapter are based on personal experience. From time to time, a market research business or survey tool vendor publishes an article on response rates – and then takes it down again. I wonder why. Could it be that the continually declining response rates are worry for them? Who knows.

Your own response rates are more reliable than my rules of thumb

In the book, you’ll find that my last word on surveys is ‘iterate’. That applies here, too: the best way to find out the typical response rate is likely to be for your survey is to run a pilot survey. You’ll find more about pilot surveys in chapter 7, “Fieldwork”, in the book.

Satisficing and how it relates to perceived effort

In the book, I provide my own interpretation of why people respond to surveys that I started to adapt from Don Dillman when I read the 2000 edition of his book that describes his Tailored Design Method for surveys. There’s more about the history of his method and links to the editions of his book:

There’s a further consideration about perceived effort that I decided not to include in the chapter for reasons of space, “satisficing”.

Satisficing means choosing an outcome that is ‘good enough’ rather than aiming for the best or optimal outcome.

The word ‘satisficing’ was originally coined by Herbert Simon in the late 1950s.

Leslie Kish wrote the definitive text on survey sampling

His book Survey Sampling (Wiley 1995) was first published in 1965 so there has clearly been a lot of material published on the topic since then. However, if you want to get a sense of one of the most influential thinkers in the world of sampling this comprehensive book – still in print – is for you.


From here, this page is a collection of notes. Please contact me if you need me to focus on it.

Response rate and representativeness

Elizabeth Martin, a leading survey methodologist, tackled the problem of representativeness in her 2004 Presidential Address to the AAPOR (American Association for Public Opinion Research):

“Low response rates do not mean that nonresponse bias is present, but they leave surveys more vulnerable to its effects if it is present” (Martin 2004).

Visualisation of small samples

It can be difficult for some of us to grasp the idea that the patterns we see in small samples arise from the sample size, not necessarily from the underlying distribution. This visualisation from Rick Wicklin’s blog on ‘Sampling variation in small random samples’ has a set of samples from a normal distribution where the samples when put into histograms look like all sorts of things. Putting them into xy charts makes them look less variable, but still with lots of outliers (which are not outliers at all).

Setting up an interview

For ideas about how to do interviews, start with Andrew Travers’s book Interviewing for research. It’s practical and thoughtful advice and has the benefit that he decided to make it free to download a few years ago.

It’s always important to check that whoever you involve in research is comfortable with what you’re planning to do. The UK local government organisation Hackney Council has a consent form that is clear and can be adapted to a variety of types of research: Understanding how best to ask for consent from user research participants.