Top 2 Box versus Top 3 Box

In a research, many of our closed-in questions use 5-point scales, such as:
  • Satisfaction scales – Extremely Satisfied, Very Satisfied, Somewhat Satisfied, Not Very Satisfied, Not At All Satisfied
  • Agreement scales – Strong Agree, Agree, Neither Agree Nor Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree
  • Judgment scales – Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, Poor

and others along similar lines.

Many of our analyses include comparing our clients’ scores on these 5-point scales to relevant normative data measured using the same scales. While we always show the full percentage distribution for our client’s scores, we typically show just a single number for the comparative norm and in our case it’s usually the Top 2 Box score. So for using our satisfaction scale as an example, that score is the combined percentage of Extremely Satisfied and Very Satisfied responses, with the other scales following the same pattern.

In recent weeks a couple of our clients have asked why we use the Top 2 Box score rather than the Top 3. They reason that the mid-point on most of our scales is basically positive. For example, they see a scale point of Somewhat Satisfied as more positive than negative and feel that a Top 3 Box score would more fairly summarize how much of the population they are surveying feels positively toward the question being asked.

There are two key reasons why we generally use Top 2 instead of Top 3, one that has to do with our experience as in data collection and another that is tied philosophically and practically to our desire to help our clients make meaningful use of their research findings.

From a research perspective, we know that many of the things we measure tend to have a positive bias. The vast majority of people are get some satisfaction from their jobs and the products/services they use (otherwise they’d leave or buy something else!), more people agree than disagree with almost any statement or description (as long as that isn’t about a highly controversial/political topic) and most people have to have a pretty lousy experience with something before they are willing to label it fair or poor. Consequently, the distribution of opinions on most 5-point scales is heavily toward the positive end of the scale. The mid-point of the scale is not the mid-point of the distribution of answers. In this sense, using the Top 2 score instead of Top 3 is similar to what a teacher does when grading on a curve – a mid-point score (3 on a five-point scale) is not the equivalent of a “C” grade, it’s more like a “D” or “D plus”. We don’t consider a “D” to be a good grade and don’t want to tell our clients they are doing great when their scores are mediocre (or worse). The Top 2 Box score generally comes closer to identifying where the “good” part of the distribution lies than the Top 3 Box score.

Even more important is the philosophical issue of what it means to have a “good” score on a survey item. Our clients use their data to make decisions in order to improve their workplaces, products and services. So it is our job to tell them, as accurately as possible, what they are doing well and where they need to improve. That means that when we categorize a score as good or set a benchmark number that a client should shoot for, it should represent a real achievement, not just scraping by. Products are not successfully launched if consumers only “kind of” like them. Workplaces are not happy and productive if they are filled with “somewhat satisfied” employees. And we’d be out of business if our clients thought we were merely “good” at what we do. We aim for the Top 2 Box and urge our clients to so so as well.


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