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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 an online questionnaire, 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 from your target audience. Keep reading to get actionable tips.

What is a questionnaire?

A questionnaire is a research tool consisting of a set of questions or other ‘prompts’ to collect data from a set of respondents.

When used in most research, a questionnaire will consist of a number of types of questions (primarily open-ended and closed) in order to gain both quantitative data that can be analyzed to draw conclusions, and qualitative data to provide longer, more specific explanations.

A research questionnaire is often mistaken for a survey - and many people use the term questionnaire and survey, interchangeably.

But that’s incorrect.

Which is what we talk about next.

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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.

Survey research can be conducted using a questionnaire, but won’t always involve one.

Questionnaire definition

A questionnaire is the list of questions you circulate to your target audience.

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.

Advantages vs disadvantages of using a questionnaire

While a questionnaire is a popular method to gather data for market research or other studies, there are a few disadvantages to using this method (although there are plenty of advantages to using a questionnaire too).

Let’s have a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of using a questionnaire for collecting data.

Advantages of using a questionnaire

1. Questionnaires are relatively cheap

Depending on the complexity of your study, using a questionnaire can be cost effective compared to other methods.

You simply need to write your survey questionnaire, and send it out and then process the responses.

You can set up an online questionnaire relatively easily, or simply carry out market research on the street if that’s the best method.

2. You can get and analyze results quickly

Again depending on the size of your survey you can get results back from a questionnaire quickly, often within 24 hours of putting the questionnaire live.

It also means you can start to analyze responses quickly too.

3. They’re easily scalable

You can easily send an online questionnaire to anyone in the world and with the right software you can quickly identify your target audience and your questionnaire to them.

4. Questionnaires are easy to analyze

If your questionnaire design has been done properly, it’s quick and easy to analyze results from questionnaires once responses start to come back.

This is particularly useful with large scale market research projects.

Because all respondents are answering the same questions, it’s simple to identify trends.

5. You can use the results to make accurate decisions

As a research instrument, a questionnaire is ideal for commercial research because the data you get back is from your target audience (or ideal customers) and the information you get back on their thoughts, preferences or behaviors allows you to make business decisions.

6. A questionnaire can cover any topic

One of the biggest advantages of using questionnaires when conducting research is (because you can adapt them using different types and styles of open ended questions and closed ended questions) they can be used to gather data on almost any topic.

There are many types of questionnaires you can design to gather both quantitative data and qualitative data - so they’re a useful tool for all kinds of data analysis.

Disadvantages of using a questionnaire

1. Respondents could lie

This is by far the biggest risk with a questionnaire, especially when dealing with sensitive topics.

Rather than give their actual opinion, a respondent might feel pressured to give the answer they deem more socially acceptable, which doesn’t give you accurate results.

2. Respondents might not answer every question

There are all kinds of reasons respondents might not answer every question, from questionnaire length, they might not understand what’s being asked, or they simply might not want to answer it.

If you get questionnaires back without complete responses it could negatively affect your research data and provide an inaccurate picture.

3. They might interpret what’s being asked incorrectly

This is a particular problem when running a survey across geographical boundaries and often comes down to the design of the survey questionnaire.

If your questions aren’t written in a very clear way, the respondent might misunderstand what’s being asked and provide an answer that doesn’t reflect what they actually think.

Again this can negatively affect your research data.

4. You could introduce bias

The whole point of producing a questionnaire is to gather accurate data from which decisions can be made or conclusions drawn.

But the data collected can be heavily impacted if the researchers accidentally introduce bias into the questions.

This can be easily done if the researcher is trying to prove a certain hypothesis with their questionnaire, and unwittingly write questions that push people towards giving a certain answer.

In these cases respondents’ answers won’t accurately reflect what is really happening and stop you gathering more accurate data.

5. Respondents could get survey fatigue

One issue you can run into when sending out a questionnaire, particularly if you send them out regularly to the same survey sample, is that your respondents could start to suffer from survey fatigue.

In these circumstances, rather than thinking about the response options in the questionnaire and providing accurate answers, respondents could start to just tick boxes to get through the questionnaire quickly.

Again, this won’t give you an accurate data set.

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Questionnaire design: How to do it

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 during a questionnaire design.

2. How to write survey questions

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
  • 31-40
  • 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.)

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

If you’re using online questionnaire templates 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.

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