5 Tips to improve the clarity of your survey questions
If you want high-quality data from your research project, it’s vital that people understand and are comfortable responding to your surveys. Find out how to improve the clarity of the questions you ask to make sure you’re improving response rates and getting higher quality data in return.
1. Keep your questions short and simple
You may be surprised to learn that many respondents do not read survey questions completely, they skim them! This is especially true for long, dense text. As a result, we must write questions that can be easily understood even when skimmed.
Respondents are more likely to actually read questions that are short. Therefore, make questions as short as possible while still clearly conveying the intent of the question to respondents.
Example 1: How long have you lived in your current house, apartment, condo, or mobile home?
Revision: How long have you lived in your current home?
Rather than spelling out all of the types of home a person can live, the revision just uses the word “home,” which makes it shorter and easier to read.
If you have difficulty keeping your question short while still conveying relevant information, consider splitting it up into multiple questions. A few short, easy-to-answer questions will be less burdensome for a respondent than a single long, complex question.
2. Avoid unnecessary definitions or introductions.
Keep introductions short and only provide definitions if they are needed to help respondents understand how to answer the question.
Example 2: Think about the last flu season (2019-2020). Flu season is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as starting in October, peaking between December and February, and ending in March.
During the flu season of October 2019 to March 2020, did you get a flu vaccine?
Revision: Between October 2019 and March 2020, did you get a flu vaccine?
Respondents do not need to know how the CDC defines the flu season to answer the question. The question includes the relevant time frame, so the introduction can be removed.
Example 3: Please type in the other type of healthcare professional you saw in the past 12 months. When you are finished typing your response, click Next to Continue.
Revision: Please type in the other type of healthcare professional you saw in the past 12 months.
The instruction to click Next when finished is unnecessary. It just makes the question wordy and encourages respondents to skim your questions instead of reading them.
3. Avoid vague language
Although overly long and wordy questions are problematic, vague questions can be even more problematic. When a concept is vague, it will not be understood in the same way by all respondents.
Example 4: Do you have a computer?
Revision: At this home, do you or any member of your household own or use
any of the following computers?
Although the Example 4 question is short, respondents could interpret it in multiple ways. Does “you” mean the respondent only? What if their spouse has a computer? Does “have” mean that you personally own it or just that you use it? And does “computer” include tablets and smartphones? By splitting out the different forms of computers in the response options, the revision reduces ambiguity without making the question overly long. This makes it easier for respondents to skim and still understand the relevant parts of the question.
Example 5: Is there an adult member of your household with whom you share financial burdens and concerns?
The term “financial burdens and concerns” is unclear. Is this referring to sharing actual expenses (e.g., rent and utilities) or is it asking if there is an adult in your household you can talk to about your difficulty making the rent payment each month? Without knowing the intent of the question, it is hard to come up with a revision. You cannot write a clear question without having a clear question objective. Sometimes it is necessary to go back and refine the intent of the question to make it more specific to reduce vagueness.
Note that a certain level of ambiguity is inevitable due to the complexities of language. Pretesting your survey with a few respondents to assess how they understand the questions can be helpful for deciding when concepts are generally clear and when more specificity is needed.
4. Avoid jargon and technical terms
As researchers, we often adopt a common language or jargon that we are familiar with, but our respondents may not be familiar with this language. Review your questions for jargon and replace it with respondent-friendly wording.
Example 6: On a typical workday, how long is your commute from your home to work?
Revision: On a typical workday, how long does it take you to get from home to work?
Not all respondents will be familiar with the word “commute.” The revision uses simpler language to convey the same point while ensuring all respondents understand the question.
5. Use reference periods when necessary
For questions that ask about past behaviors, respondents’ answers are usually more accurate and reliable when the question includes a clearly defined time period. Examples of reference periods include “In the past 12 months,” “In the past 30 days,” or “In a typical week.”
Example 7: Prior to applying to your most recent job, did you apply to any other jobs?
Revision: In the 3 months before you applied to your most recent job, did you apply to any other jobs?
Without a reference period, it is unclear if Example Question 7 is asking about jobs the respondent applied to recently or jobs they may have applied for a year ago.
Reference periods can sometimes be useful for attitude questions too. Although current attitudes are often the most reliable, reference periods can improve the clarity of questions when the underlying attitude may change over time and you are not surveying them frequently enough to capture that change.
Example 8: How satisfied are you with your workload at XYZ Company?
Revision: Thinking about the past 3 months, how satisfied have you been with your workload at XYZ Company?
If the workload varies at XYZ company week by week but employees are only surveyed once a quarter, Example Question 8 will not provide an accurate picture of satisfaction with the workload. If it has been an unusually busy or slow week, insights will be off. Adding a reference period makes it clear that employees should think about their workload over the past 3 months and not just right now. Be sure to keep the reference periods as short as possible. Employees will have a hard time remembering how they felt about their workload 6 months or 12 months earlier.
And if your survey will use different reference periods for different questions (e.g., “past 12 months” in one question and “past 30 days” in another), it is a good idea to place the reference period at the start of the question. That ensures that respondents see the reference period before answering the question. Otherwise, respondents may not notice that the reference period has changed from one question to another.
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June 17, 2021