How To Make Your Survey More Appealing To Skim Readers

Philip Cleave
September 12, 2023
Busy man with only time to skim read a survey

If your survey doesn’t immediately communicate its purpose, instill trust and engage, then it’s likely to be ignored.

However, there’s a less obvious point that many people overlook, but is growing in significance, namely that more people are skim reading surveys.

So, what is skim reading, why do people do it and how can we make our surveys more friendly to skim readers?

Well, that’s what we’ll go on to explore next.

What is skim reading?

When we refer to skim reading, we’re talking about a strategic and selective method of reading where we just focus on the main ideas of a text. Instead of closely reading every word, skim readers tend to just scan areas such as the introduction, chapter summaries, first and last sentences of paragraphs, bold words, and text features.

Why do people skim read?

People usually skim read, either because they’re generally short on time, or they need to locate some specific information quickly.

Given that skim reading helps you to familiarise yourself with and get the essence of what’s being said within a text, skim reading’s a very effective way of scanning lots of sources and deciding what you want to analyze in more depth.

Consequently, skim reading is particularly effective for research, where a reader typically needs to be smarter and more efficient in their approach, to quickly gather a wide range of sources and information to help support their work.

However, skim reading can be useful for a much wider variety of activities, particularly when people are time-starved such as many respondents when they receive an online survey. Therefore, it helps to know how you can make your survey more skimmable, which we will go on to look at next.

Four ways to make your survey more friendly to skim readers

While it will always be the case that academic and more formal B2B surveys will need to be more detailed, more generally making your survey more skimmable, will make it simpler to understand and answer, inviting more accurate and honest feedback.

Here’s some key ways to achieve that.

1. A strong introduction

Probably one of the most important areas to help a skim reader quickly get the gist of what your survey is all about is to start with your survey introduction.

A good introduction not only sets the tone for the rest of your survey, but it should also make it crystal clear what your survey is about.

You're more likely to get a response to your survey, if your introduction outlines your objectives and purpose for running the survey, as well as how you will use the data you collect and keep respondents’ data confidential.

Respondents also want to know upfront some idea about how long it will take to complete. Therefore, your survey will be even more attractive to survey takers, if you can include this information.

2. The transparent survey ask

If you’re using email to send your survey, always try to be transparent with what you’re asking for in your subject line.

Whether you’re asking respondents for their help or for an opinion. When you ask someone in a transparent way, then they’re more likely to say ‘yes’.

You may want to turn your introduction message into more of an ask as well. However, you need to be careful not to overcomplicate your intro message or use up the valuable space with a throwaway comment.

If you go for this type of survey intro, you need to keep it fairly short. Here’s some examples, using the example of an employee onboarding survey, and starting off with one that is best to avoid.

Very bad:

“Now that you’ve completed your onboarding training with us, we need your input to improve our training. Please reply to this survey by next Wednesday at the latest.”


“We hope you enjoyed our onboarding training. Please complete our onboarding survey.”


Having completed our onboarding training, we’d really appreciate your feedback to our onboarding survey.”

3. Clear, unambiguous questions

Taking a survey should never be tedious. And survey questions that are unclear, riddled with spelling errors, or are too long and complicated can negatively impact your response rates.

So, you need to consider this checklist, if you’re to make your survey more skim reader friendly.

  • Try to avoid long, laborious questions
  • Use clear and simple language
  • Avoid any terms skimmers may not understand such as “survey speak”
  • Don’t use uncommon acronyms
  • Avoid multiple clauses, as seen in this bullet point, often linked by commas; or worse – semicolons
  • Try to place your important “asks” near the beginning (e.g. “How satisfied are you,” or “How do you rank.”)
  • Don’t use leading questions

Taking all of this advice together, it’s important to try and keep your questions as simple as possible.

To highlight this, consider the question examples below, which includes a very bad and a good version.

Very bad:

“Having spent several hours with the SmartSurvey team, on a scale of 1-5, how effective do you think your overall onboarding training was?


“On a scale of 1-5, how do you rate your SmartSurvey onboarding experience?

4. A trusted source

From anonymity and confidentiality, a clear privacy policy, and opt-in and opt-out options to following up with a respondent after they’ve taken your first survey and more. While there are many things you can do to build more trust, and get more people to take your surveys, there’s a number of actions you can take to build increased confidence for skim readers, which they can view at a glance. These are typically focused on the look and design of your survey and suggest.

  • Placing your brand logo front and center
  • Ensuring your surveys are distributed from one of your corporate email accounts
  • Using your business name somewhere in the question or supportive text

Final thoughts

We hope you found this blog interesting, and if you weren’t already, you now have a better understanding of skim readers.

While it’s important to consider this growing phenomenon, ultimately collecting a representative sample of valid and reliable results is what matters most.

When they’re skilfully crafted, surveys that communicate a purpose and build trust will yield the greatest response rates. And by carefully proofreading and applying the types of customisations outlined in this blog, you’ll be able to elicit meaningful feedback, even from the skimmers in your audience.

One final piece of advice, try not to overthink things. Remember having made your changes, you can always use any metrics you’ve set up to regularly check if your customisations are helping and readjust them as needed.

Build the clear and engaging surveys you need

Keeping your surveys as clear and concise as you can is crucial if you’re to engage groups such as skim readers. However, you’ll only get the very best results if you have the right survey tools to support you.

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