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Your ultimate guide to questionnaires and how to design a good one

The written questionnaire is the heart and soul of any survey research project. Whether you conduct your survey using online questionnaires, in person, by email or over the phone, the way you design your questionnaire plays a critical role in shaping the quality of the data and insights that you’ll get. Keep reading to get actionable tips.

Make your surveys work for you. Ebook: Qualtrics Survey Guide

Survey vs. questionnaire – what’s the difference?

Before we go too much further, let’s consider the differences between surveys and questionnaires. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but there is an important difference between them.

Survey definition

A survey is the process of collecting data from a set of respondents and using it to gather insights

Questionnaire definition

A questionnaire is the list of questions you circulate to your respondents

In other words, the survey is the task you’re carrying out, and the questionnaire is the instrument you’re using to do it. By itself, a questionnaire doesn’t achieve much. It’s when you put it into action as part of a survey that you start to get results.

How to make a questionnaire

It’s essential to carefully craft a questionnaire to reduce survey error and optimize your data. The best way to think about the questionnaire is with the end result in mind.

How do you do that?

Start with questions, like: What is my research purpose? What data do I need? How am I going to analyze that data? What questions are needed to best suit these variables?

Once you have a clear idea of the purpose of your survey, you’ll be in a better position to create an effective questionnaire. Here are a few steps to help you get into the right mindset.

1. Keep the respondent front and center

A survey is the process of collecting information from people, so it needs to be designed around human beings first and foremost. In his post about survey design theory, David Vannette, PhD, from the Qualtrics Methodology Lab explains the correlation between the way a survey is designed and the quality of data that is extracted.

“To begin designing an effective survey, take a step back and try to understand what goes on in your respondents’ heads when they are taking your survey. This step is critical to making sure that your questionnaire makes it as likely as possible that the response process follows that expected path.”

From writing the questions to designing the survey flow, the respondent’s point of view should always be front and center in your mind questionnaire design.

2. Ask questions the right way

Your questionnaire should only be as long as it needs to be, and every question needs to deliver value. That means your questions must each have an individual purpose and produce the best possible data for that purpose, all while supporting the overall goal of the survey.

A question must also must be phrased in a way that is easy for all your respondents to understand, and does not produce false results. To do this, remember the following principles:

Get into the respondent's head

The process for a respondent answering a survey question looks like this:

  1. The respondent reads the question and determines what information they need to answer it.
  2. They search their memory for that information.
  3. They make judgments about that information.
  4. They translate that judgment into one of the answer options you’ve provided. This is the process of taking the data they have and matching that information with the question that’s asked.

When wording questions, make sure the question means the same thing to all respondents. Words should have one meaning, few syllables, and the sentences should have few words. Only use the words needed to ask your question and not a word more.

Note that it’s important that the respondent understands the intent behind your question. If they don’t, they may answer a different question and the data can be skewed. Some contextual help text, either in the introduction to the questionnaire or before the question itself, can help make sure the respondent understands your goals and the scope of your research.

Use mutually exclusive responses

Be sure to make your response categories mutually exclusive.

Consider the question:

What is your age?

  • 18-31
  • 31-4o
  • 40-55
  • 55+

Respondents that are 31 years old have two options, as do respondents that are 40 and 55. As a result, it is impossible to predict which category they will choose. This can distort results and frustrate respondents. It can be easily avoided by making responses mutually exclusive.

The following question is much better:

What is your age?

  • 18-30
  • 31-39
  • 40-54
  • 55+

This question is clear and will give us better results.

Ask specific questions

Nonspecific questions can confuse respondents and influence results.

Consider the question:

Do you like orange juice?

  • Like very much
  • Like
  • Neither like nor dislike
  • Dislike
  • Dislike very much

This question is very unclear. Is it asking about taste, texture, price, or the nutritional content? Different respondents will read this question differently. A specific question will get more specific answers that are actionable.

The following question is much better:

How much do you like the current price of orange juice?

  • Like very much
  • Like
  • Neither like nor dislike
  • Dislike
  • Dislike very much

This question is more specific and will get better results. If you need to collect responses about more than one aspect of a subject, you can include multiple questions on it. (Do you like the taste of orange juice? Do you like the nutritional content of orange juice? etc.)

Read More: Survey Question Sequence, Flow, & Style Tips

Use a variety of question types

If all of your questionnaire, survey or poll questions are structured the same way (e.g. yes/no or multiple choice) the respondents are likely to become bored and tune out. That could mean they pay less attention to how they’re answering or even give up altogether.

Instead, mix up the question types to keep the experience interesting and varied. It’s a good idea to include questions that yield both qualitative and quantitative data.

For example, an open-ended questionnaire item such as “describe your attitude to life” will provide qualitative data – a form of information that’s rich, unstructured and unpredictable. The respondent will tell you in their own words what they think and feel.

A quantitative / close-ended questionnaire item, such as “Which word describes your attitude to life? a) practical b) philosophical” gives you a much more structured answer, but the answers will be less rich and detailed.

Open-ended questions take more thought and effort to answer, so use them sparingly. They also require a different kind of treatment once your survey is in the analysis stage.

3. Pre-test your questionnaire

Always pre-test a questionnaire before sending it out to respondents. This will help catch any errors you might have missed. You could ask a colleague, friend, or an expert to take the survey and give feedback. If possible, ask a few cognitive questions like, “how did you get to that response?” and “what were you thinking about when you answered that question?” Figure out what was easy for the responder and where there is potential for confusion. You can then re-word where necessary to make the experience as frictionless as possible.

If your resources allow, you could also consider using a focus group to test out your survey. Having multiple respondents road-test the questionnaire will give you a better understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. Match the focus group to your target respondents as closely as possible, for example in terms of age, background, gender, and level of education.

Note: Don't forget to make your survey as accessible as possible for increased response rates.

Questionnaire examples and templates

There are templates and example questions available for all kinds of surveys, many of them free online. But they’re not all created equal and you should use critical judgement when selecting one. After all, the questionnaire templates may be free but the time and energy you’ll spend carrying out a survey are not.

If you’re using an online questionnaire template as the basis for your own, make sure it has been developed by professionals and is specific to the type of research you’re doing to ensure higher completion rates. As we’ve explored here, using the wrong kinds of questions can result in skewed or messy data, and could even prompt respondents to abandon the questionnaire without finishing or give thoughtless answers.

You’ll find a full library of downloadable survey templates in the Qualtrics Marketplace, covering many different types of research from employee engagement to post-event feedback. All are fully customizable and have been developed by Qualtrics experts.

Want to dive deeper? You’ll find more best practices in the survey methodology on the Qualtrics blog. You can also:

Download eBook: Increase Response Rates With Your Surveys

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