How to Write a Good Survey Questionnaire

Came across this in the thousands of papers I have lying around – thought it might be helpful to those who are trying to design survey questionnaires!

The complex art of question writing has been investigated by many researchers. From their experiences, they offer valuable advice. Below are some helpful hints typical of those that appear most often in texts on question construction. Survey research is traditionally almost always used in quantitative research, however it can be integrated into qual. with some creative thinking.

Keep the language simple & relax your grammar.
Analyze your audience and write on their level. Whenever possible, always avoid using technical terms/jargon. Remember, the simpler the better and if someone can misunderstand something, they certainly will. Relaxing your grammar can make much more formal questions sound a bit more personable, for instance feel free to use “who” in an instance where formal tradition might suggest that “whom” is, in fact, correct.

Write short questions and a short questionnaire.
Long questions can become ambiguous and confusing. A survey respondent, in trying to understand a long question, may forget part of the question and thus misunderstand question. Above all, draw a distinction between what is essential to know, what is useful, and what is unnecessary. Keep the essential, keep the useful to a minimum, and throw out anything unnecessary.

Always apply the “So what?” and “Who cares?” tests to each question. Remember, however, to keep in mind that you should not leave out questions that would yield necessary data just because it will shorten your survey. If the information is needed, ask the question.

Limit each question to one idea or concept.
A question consisting of more than one idea may confuse the respondent and lead to a pointless answer. Consider this question: “Are you in favor of raising taxes and lowering deficit?” What the hell would either answer mean?

Don’t write leading questions.
These questions are worded in a manner that suggests an answer. Some respondents may give the answer you are looking for whether or not they think it is right. Think about what you assume when you ask each question. For example, if you ask “What is the best day of the week to schedule the new review meeting?” you’re assuming that that everyone taking the questionnaire even wants/needs another meeting.

Remember a perfectly worded question gives the respondent no idea as to which answer you may believe to be correct.

Avoid subjective words & double negatives.
These terms mean different things to different people (hence, subjective…). One person’s “fair” may be another person’s “god awful.” How much is “often” and how little is “seldom?” You can easily confuse respondents when involving tow negative words. So tell me, don’t you not like this blog?

Allow for all possible answers.
Respondents who can’t find their answer among your list will be forced to give an invalid reply or, possibly, become frustrated and refuse to complete the survey. Wording the question to reduce the number of possible answers is the first step.

Avoid dichotomous questions. If you cannot avoid them, add a third option, such as no opinion, don’t know, or other. These may not get the answers you need but they will minimize the number of invalid responses. A great number of “don’t know” answers to a question in a fact-finding survey can be a useful piece of information. But a majority of other answers may mean you have a poor question, and perhaps should be cautious when analyzing the results.

Avoid emotional/morally charged questions.
This one kind of speaks for itself. It’s OK to ask about a person’s morals, etc. just don’t write leading questions.

Assure a common understanding.
Write questions that everyone will understand in the same way. Don’t assume that everyone has the same understanding of the facts or a common basis of knowledge. Identify even commonly used abbreviations to be certain that everyone understands.

Start with interesting questions.
Start the survey with questions that are likely to sound interesting and attract the respondents’ attention. Save the questions that might be difficult or threatening for later.

Don’t make the list of choices too long.
If the list of answer categories is long and unfamiliar, it is difficult for respondents to evaluate all of them. Keep the list of choices short.

Avoid difficult recall questions.
People’s memories are increasingly unreliable as you ask them to recall events farther and farther back in time. You will get far more accurate information from people if you ask, “About how many times in the last month have you gone out and seen a movie in a movie theater or drive-in?” rather than, “About how many times last year did you go out and see a movie in a movie theater or drive-in?”

Use Closed-ended questions rather than Open-ended ones.
Most questionnaires rely on questions with a fixed number of response categories from which respondents select their answers. These are useful because the respondents know clearly the purpose of the question and are limited to a set of choices where one answer is right for them. An open-ended question is a written response. For example: “If you don’t like the product, please explain why”. If there are an excessive number of written response questions, it reduces the quality and attention the respondents give to the answers.

Put your questions in a logical order.
The issues raised in one question can influence how people think about subsequent questions. It is good to ask a general question and then ask more specific questions. For example, you should avoid asking a series of questions about a free product sample and then question about the most important factors in selecting a product.

Understand the should-would question.
Formulate your questions and answers to obtain exact information and to minimize confusion.

For example, does “How old are you?” mean on your last or your nearest birthday? Does “What is your (military) grade?” mean permanent or temporary grade? As of what date? By including instructions like “Answer all questions as of (a certain date)”, you can alleviate many such conflicts.

Include a few questions that can serve as checks on the accuracy and consistency of the answers as a whole.

Have some questions that are worded differently, but are soliciting the same information, in different parts of the questionnaire. These questions should be designed to identify the respondents who are just marking answers randomly or who are trying to game the survey (giving answers they think you want to hear). If you find a respondent who answers these questions differently, you have reason to doubt the validity of their entire set of responses. For this reason, you may decide to exclude their response sheet(s) from the analysis.

Organize the pattern of the questions:

  • Place demographic questions at the end of the questionnaire.
  • Have your opening questions arouse interest.
  • Ask easier questions first.
  • To minimize conditioning, have general questions precede specific ones.
  • Group similar questions together.
  • If you must use personal or emotional questions, place them at the end of the questionnaire.

Pretest the questionnaire.
This is the most important step in preparing your questionnaire. The purpose of the pretest is to see just how well your cover letter motivates your respondents and how clear your instructions, questions, and answers are. You should choose a small group of people (from three to ten should be sufficient) you feel are representative of the group you plan to survey. After explaining the purpose of the pretest, let them read and answer the questions without interruption. When they are through, ask them to critique the cover letter, instructions, and each of the questions and answers. Don’t be satisfied with learning only what confused or alienated them. Question them to make sure that what they thought something meant was really what you intended it to mean. Use the above hints as a checklist, and go through them with your pilot test group to get their reactions on how well the questionnaire satisfies these points. Finally, redo any parts of the questionnaire that are weak.

And have fun in the wild world of survey research you freaking rebel!

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