Designing a questionnaire

Survey questionnaires can be a relatively simple way to obtain market research data, and taking the time to create a well-designed questionnaire can give you useful and accurate insight into your audience's opinions.

Keep it as short and simple as possible

A short questionnaire is more likely to be completed and returned. It's important to establish a clear goal for your market research project and avoid including questions that do not contribute to the achievement of this goal.

It is also important to make your questionnaire as simple as possible, especially if it is being administered on paper.

In some situations, you may need to use a more complex design, such as one that requires respondents to skip or complete questions or sections based upon their previous responses. It is important to make sure that the design is as straightforward as possible.

Complex designs are generally best suited for online or telephone questionnaires. The software or interviewer can ask the appropriate questions based on previous responses. With paper questionnaires and in-person interviews, however, the use of 'skip patterns' and other potentially confusing design elements should be kept to a minimum.

Keep questions brief and easy to understand

Brief questions that use simple language minimize the chances that your questions will be misunderstood, making your survey results more useful.

Simple language is easy to read and comprehend, making your questionnaire less taxing for your participants.

Be brief and direct with your questions, leaving out any unnecessary words and phrases. Short questions are easier for the respondents to answer because they don't have to retain as much information, and therefore are less likely to need to re-read the questions.

Make sure your questions are in the right order

You may want to start your questionnaire with general questions and then move to specific ones. General questions are often easier to answer and can serve as a 'warm-up' that will help your respondents ease into the questionnaire. This can help them to answer more specific questions faster and more accurately later on.

Try to avoid jumping back and forth between general and specific questions as this will require your respondents to shift their focus as they attempt to answer the questions. Slowly building up the complexity of the questions can help your respondents maintain concentration for the entire length of the questionnaire. Personal questions, such as those asking for demographic information, should be placed near the end of the questionnaire. This way, you will still have usable data from the questionnaire if the respondent declines to answer the more personal questions. Make sure you respect privacy laws.

Use open-ended questions appropriately

Open-ended questions allow respondents to answer freely using their own words. Closed-ended questions can be answered using a simple piece of information, such as a 'yes' or 'no'.

The advantage of open-ended questions is that they can generate more detailed information. However, open-ended questions take more time and effort to answer and can be more difficult to analyze once you have collected your responses.

Avoid using leading questions

A leading question is one in which the answer is suggested within the question itself and can make the respondent feel compelled to answer in a particular way. This can frustrate respondents and skew your survey results. Some examples of leading questions are:

  • You like eating at restaurant X, don't you?
  • Why do you like eating at restaurant X more than restaurant Y?

Avoid using compound questions

Compound questions are two or more questions in one. These questions are problematic because the answer may be different for each part of the question. Examples of compound questions include:

  • 'Have you ever shopped at store X and do you shop there frequently?'
  • 'Do you purchase product X and product Y?'

Make sure your questions are straightforward

Ambiguous questions use words that do not have fixed definitions and are therefore open to a range of interpretations by respondents. Questions that use ambiguous words can produce inconsistent results. Avoid being ambiguous about the time period the respondent should consider, and about describing your product or service. Some examples of questions using ambiguous words are:

  • Do you buy product X regularly?
  • Is product X a good product?

Make sure your questions can be answered

Unanswerable questions are those which require the respondent to provide information that is difficult to remember or convey accurately, if at all. If your respondents find the questions too difficult to answer, your response rate is likely to suffer. Some examples of unanswerable questions include:

  • What is the first restaurant you remember visiting?
  • How many fruits and vegetables have you eaten in the past three months?

Future behaviour can be difficult to predict, so while the answers to questions such as ‘If your income increased, would you buy more of product X?' can give you useful information, keep in mind that actual consumer behaviour may unfold differently.

Use clear response scales

Response scales assess a respondent's level of agreement or disagreement with a statement, or their satisfaction with an experience. For example, you might ask a respondent to rate their experience with your business on a scale of one to five.

Response scales can be an excellent way to remove ambiguity from questions and gather data that is easy to tabulate and interpret. There are some pitfalls to be aware of, however, when designing questions that incorporate response scales.

First, when selecting the number of response categories, try not to have so few that respondents' answers fall between the points, or so many that the values are too ambiguous to produce useful data. Scales with 5 or 7 points are generally considered appropriate for providing valid and reliable responses.

Offering a neutral response option as a midpoint appears to enhance the quality of the data that is produced. Ensure that the differences between the response categories are roughly equivalent and present the choices in a logical and consistent manner (for example, low to high ratings) to avoid confusing your respondents.

You must also make sure that your response categories are mutually exclusive and exhaustive. Mutually exclusive categories have no overlap between adjacent categories. Exhaustive categories ensure that there are no gaps between categories and that the high and low categories account for all possible extreme answers.

Keep it clean and visually appealing

To make your questionnaire as easy to read as possible, keep the following design elements in mind:

  • Text: Choose a font style that is easy to read, and make sure the font size is large enough for your respondents to read. If you use coloured text, make sure the contrast on the paper or screen is adequate.
  • Paragraphs: Long paragraphs can be daunting for readers, so try to keep your blocks of text to a handful of lines.
  • White space: Ensure that there is space between questions and sections and don't make margins too small.

Always pre-test your questionnaire

Testing your questionnaire in advance can help you identify any changes that need to be made. There are several testing options you can use.

One option is to have friends or family members complete your questionnaire. Try to select people who are unfamiliar with the goals of your market research campaign. Those who already know what information you are looking for may not accurately represent the people who will participate in your survey. Try to select people who won't hesitate to provide constructive criticism if necessary.

Ideally, you should test your questionnaire with individuals that represent the population you will be targeting with your market research campaign (for example, your customers or residents in the geographic location you serve). Conducting a small pilot test of the questionnaire is one way to get feedback from relatively impartial participants. Given that you may not be able to ask these people questions about the questionnaire itself, this option may not allow you to clearly identify problems with your survey questions. Problems may have to be inferred based on the results you receive through completed questionnaires, and some problems may slip through the cracks.

One of the best ways to evaluate your questionnaire is to conduct personal interviews or focus groups with individuals that have taken the survey. Getting these individuals to take time to test your questionnaire and give you feedback can be a challenge, so you may want to compensate participants for their time.

Interviews and focus groups allow you to determine whether your questions were clear and easy to answer. These approaches allow you to shift gears as needed or focus on any problem areas identified by your participants. While focus groups can save time by allowing you to get the opinions of several individuals in a single session, keep in mind that individuals may be influenced by others in the group.

The testing method you choose will be influenced by the type of information you require, the amount of time you have available, and your market research budget. Taking the time to develop a well thought-out, participant-friendly questionnaire will give you useful data that can help you make solid business decisions.

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