It sounds like a dilemma you might have at a cocktail party: imagine you could provide some meaningful information to a stranger, but you need to learn something sensitive about them first. So how do you gather that sensitive information without alienating them?

This was a conundrum we discovered when we had users interact with homeowner’s insurance quote tools.

In order to calculate an accurate quote for a home, any underwriter would need to know how valuable the house is. There are many contributing factors, but the build quality and level of furnishings have a large impact.

Picture a 3,000 square foot house with gorgeous oak floors, high-end appliances, modern light fixtures, and high-efficiency windows. Now imagine a 3,000 square foot house in the same zip code, but the appliances are outdated and were inexpensive when new, the floors are laminate, and the windows are drafty old things.

The value of these homes will be quite different, though they have the same footprint and share a post office. How can one generate an accurate insurance quote without touring the home to appraise it? If you’re creating an online tool, you probably need to ask the user where they fit on that spectrum.

For example, State Farm had users grade aspects of their house on a scale of “Economy” to “Premium.”

State Farm had users grade

It just got sensitive.

We’re talking about someone’s home here… a person’s home is their castle and referring to their house as “Economy” may be insulting. Indeed, in user testing, some respondents felt they or their homes were being judged by social class. They did not like it.

The sensitive-question problem isn’t limited to homeowner’s insurance, however. In 2017, we conducted a user test of social security calculator tools. One discovery we made was that users were uncomfortable estimating at what age they would die.

Not a groundbreaking scientific discovery there, but it did highlight an issue with retirement calculators and retirement calculation in general: you can’t really know how long your money has to last because you can’t know how long you’ll last.

But here’s some insight; if you really want to provide meaningful financial guidance, people may admit to having some sense of their longevity. For example, people know if they smoke, if they eat well, if they drink or use recreational drugs. Many people know how long their parents, grandparents, etc. lived. You may not want to say it out loud without knocking on wood, but you might have a sense of how long your retirement funds need to last.

Just think how much additional insight that retirement calculator could provide if you could share that info.

So how do you measure a home’s value without coming across as crass?

Some sites do it by asking about specifics rather than the whole home. For example, asking about flooring materials, exterior materials, kitchen counter materials, etc. can yield a good picture of the home’s value.

In this example from Progressive, we can see how they gauge the finish of the kitchen.

Progressive, we can see how they gauge the finish of the kitchen

These measures are also less subjective than “economy”, “standard,” “high-end”, etc.

A lucky break for the homeowner’s insurance field: we found that users were willing to answer a relatively long online survey if they felt confident they would get an accurate quote. Therefore, replacing one “home quality grade” question with several “tell us about your finishes” questions is less likely to alienate users.

It’s smart to consider the emotional state of your users when writing an online questionnaire.  We discussed this topic and other useful findings uncovered in our recent user test during the UX Spotlight webinar, Best Practices for Improving Your Homeowner’s Insurance Quote Tools.