The written questionnaire is the heart and soul of any survey research project. Most companies are not able to see the customer’s buying experience the way they can see them walk around a physical store, so gathering that data through online questionnaires is imperative. Otherwise you’re shooting in the dark. 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 actional tips for creating your next questionnaire.

Before we go too much further, lets first consider the differences between surveys and questionnaires. Surveys are a broader form of data collection that can include a few different research methods such as interviews, questionnaires or observational research.  It’s a common conception that surveys and questionnaires are the same things. This misconception could be because a questionnaire is the most common form of surveys due to the cost and scalability of questionnaires.

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

Then craft an intentional questionnaire to get those results. Here are a few steps to think about crafting an effective questionnaire.

Keep the Respondent Front and Center

In his post about survey design theory, David Vannette, PhD, head of 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 order, the respondent should always be front and center.

Ask Questions the Right Way

Every question must have an individual purpose, produce the best possible data for that purpose, and match the research purpose. It also must be asked in a way that is easy 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 he needs to answer it. It’s important that he understands the intent of the question. If he doesn’t, he may answer a different question and the data can be skewed.
  2. He searches his memory for that information.
  3. He makes judgments about that information.
  4. He translates that judgment into response alternatives. This is the process of taking the data he has 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.

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 are interested in more than one attribute, you can include multiple questions to get more information. (Do you like the taste of orange juice? Do you like the nutritional content of orange juice? etc.)

Pre-Test Your Questionnaire

Finally, always pre-test a questionnaire before sending it out to respondents. This can be done by having a colleague, friend, or an expert take the survey and give feedback. It will help catch any errors you missed. Also, ask reviewers 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 maximize that.

There are best practices in the survey methodology field that can be a good resource if you want to dive deeper. WebSurveyMethodology has great targeted content. Google Scholar is also very user-friendly and an easy place to look for more information.

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7 Tips for Writing Surveys

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This post was originally published September 16 2009, and updated on February 23 2018.