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Survey question sequence, flow, & style tips

4 min read
You write a survey like you write a story. There’s a beginning, middle and an end. Use flow and structure to guide your respondents in a way that makes sense to them and delivers results to you.


Writing a survey that is a pleasure to take and provides you with clean data is key to your research project. Having a survey question flow that is easy for respondents to take will boost your completion rates and keep respondents more engaged. Here are 5 ways you can improve the question flow of your survey.

1. Use the funnel technique

Structure your questionnaire using what is called the “funnel” technique. Start with broad general interest questions that are easy for the respondent to answer. These questions serve to warm up the respondent and get them involved in the survey. The most difficult questions are placed in the middle – those that take time to think about and those that are of less general interest. At the end, we again place general questions that are easier to answer and of broad interest and application. Typically, these last questions include demographic and other classification questions.

2. Keep your survey short

Questionnaires should be kept short and to the point. Most long surveys are not completed. A quick look at a survey containing page after page of boring questions produces a response of “there is no way I’m going to complete this thing”. If a questionnaire is long, the person must either be very interested in the topic, an employee, or paid for their time. Online surveys have an advantage because the respondent will usually not see all of the survey at once. However if your survey sends them page after page of questions, your response rate will drop off dramatically.

How long is too long? The general rule of thumb is to keep the survey short, typically fewer than five minutes. This translates into about 15 questions (Simple questions – not those long matrix questions that require many responses each).

The average respondent is able to complete about 3 multiple choice questions per minute. An open-ended text response question counts for about three multiple choice questions depending, of course, on the difficulty of the question. While only a rule of thumb, this formula will accurately predict the limits of your survey.

3. Use a simple writing style

You will help ensure your respondents understand your survey if you lower the level of sophistication in your survey writing to the “Year 10-12 level”. Don’t use big words. Use simple sentences and simple choices for the answers. Your goal is not to impress the respondent with your wide vocabulary and elegant prose. Simplicity is still the best.

Learn more about writing good survey questions

4. Benefits of randomisation

We know that being the first on the list in elections increases the chance of election. Similar bias occurs in all questionnaires when the same answer appears at the top of the list for each respondent. Randomisation corrects this bias by randomly rotating the order of the multiple choice matrix questions for each respondent.

5. Consider ringer or throw away questions

Questionnaires often include “ringer or throw away” questions to increase interest and willingness to respond to a survey. These questions are about hot topics of the day and often have little to do with the survey. While these questions will definitely spice up a boring survey, they require valuable space that could be devoted to the main topic of interest. Use this type of question with caution.

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