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How to write good survey questions

4 min read
Writing good market research survey questions is an art. When it’s done well, you’ll get the accurate responses you need for your data to be reliable and useful. Follow these simple tips to help you write questions that will deliver the best information possible.

Keep them simple

Make your questions short, simple and logically organised. If you don’t, your respondents will get bored, frustrated, irritated and drop out of the survey. It costs money to find respondents, so it pays to keep them engaged to the end.

Start with broad, general questions to introduce the subject, then move to more specific ones. Finish with easy-to-answer questions, such as demographics.

Ask only single questions

Take the following example: ‘What do you think of our new store layout and our refurbished café?’ Here, the respondent is forced to answer two questions at once – and may either skip the question or refer to just one in their answer – and you won’t necessarily know which.

Better to create two single questions: ‘What do you think of our new store layout?’ and ‘What do you think of our refurbished café?’

Avoid survey bias

Biased survey questions are worded in such a way as to favour one particular answer over the others, and they give you misleading data.

There are many types of biased questions, the most common being:

  • The leading question: e.g. ‘How dissatisfied are you with our delivery service?’, assumes everyone’s unhappy with the service. ‘What do you feel about our delivery service?’ is a more neutral question.
  • The loaded question: e.g. ‘Where do you go shopping at the weekend?’ assumes everybody does this and excludes those who don’t. ‘What do you do at the weekend?’ is easier for everyone to answer.
  • The absolute question that requires only yes or no answers creates bias because it doesn’t reflect a bigger picture. E.g. ‘Do you eat bread every day?’ Many people don’t, so they simply answer no. ‘How many times a week do you eat bread?’ gives you much more quantitative data.

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Speak your audience’s language

A good rule of thumb is to write for your least-informed respondent. Use clear language and terminology to make it easy to understand what you are asking. It’s important to avoid technical jargon and acronyms, as these unintentionally create survey bias – only some people in your audience know what you are talking about, which will alienate others and skew your data.

Explain why you’re asking these questions

Respondents are more likely to answer your survey questions if they can see value in them. Explain your purpose: to improve customer service or make a product better, perhaps. If you can make this value specific to the respondent, you’ll get a better response rate.

Sensitive questions

‘What is your annual income?’, ‘What is your occupation?’, ‘How many children do you have?’, ‘How did you vote in the last election?’ and ‘How often do you shower?’ are all examples of sensitive questions. Many people are reluctant to answer questions about finances, income, occupation, health, family, personal hygiene and political or religious beliefs. Only ask such questions when they are absolutely necessary to your survey and justify why you need them – for benchmarking, or only within your organisation, for instance. Always include a ‘Prefer Not to Answer’ option for such sensitive questions.

Use scales

You’ll be able to extract optimum qualitative data from your survey if you use scales that measure the direction and the intensity of opinion, e.g. ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’. Scales extend the depth of your analysis from basic percentages to higher levels based on means and variance estimates. You’ll get more information from each question.

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