6 Tips To Writing Survey Questions That get Results | Typeform

How to write survey questions that get results

Do you want to improve your customer journey? Are you perfecting the employee experience? Then write kick-ass questions that get actionable feedback.

How to write survey questions that get results

Ask better questions - get better data

We live in the Information Age, a time where data is a source of capital. Surveys have become one of the time-tested ways of gathering data. But even with 200+ years of published research and experience, people still fail to obtain helpful information from their surveys.

Why is that? Because good data starts with great survey questions.

Since asking and answering questions are part of the way we communicate, people often believe writing survey questions is easy. However, there is a big difference between asking questions and asking the right questions.

In this article you’ll learn evidence-based techniques for writing effective survey questions, so you can gather useful data and actionable insights.

What are the Characteristics of Good Survey Questions?

Good survey questions elicit answers that provide meaningful and consistent information about what we are trying to learn or understand. A good question produces answers that are reliable and valid, meaning that the overall responses are repeatable, consistent, and correspond accurately to what you were trying to measure.


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6 Principles for Writing Effective Survey Questions

While there is an art to designing effective survey questions, there are also several principles of survey design that will help you get the information you need from your friends or customers.

In this section, we have distilled some of the most authoritative survey research into 6 tips for writing survey questions:

1

Define the objective

Remember that the aim of conducting a survey isn’t just to get answers. We are interested in what the answers will tell us about something else, which is why it’s crucial to define a clear purpose to every question you ask in a survey.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make in designing survey questions is failing to translate the intention of the topic being asked into a meaningful and relevant survey question,” explains Robert Gray, President of Insightlink Communications.

“It is absolutely critical to have a clear understanding of the purpose and objectives of the survey and of the individual topics to be covered.”

 

Before you start writing survey questions, create a list of objectives that outlines the kind of information you’re trying to glean with each question. A plan for how you will use the data gathered from each response will help you ensure that the questions are targeted, relevant, and purposeful.

Example objective: Assess employee attitudes towards standing desks

Possible questions:

In the past 12 months, have you used a standing desk?
If yes: The standing desk improved my overall productivity (Agree—Neutral—Disagree)
If no: I like the idea of testing a standing desk at work (Agree—Neutral—Disagree)
Research has shown that standing desks result in fewer sick days and more productivity in the workplace. I believe the company should invest in standing desks for employees (Agree—Neutral—Disagree)

2

Understand that there are only two types of questions.

While several articles expound various types of surveys, such as multiple choice, Likert scales, open-ended, and so on, these are actually the types of responses. On the other hand, there are two types of survey questions: factual or objective questions and attitude or subjective questions.

Factual questions are aimed at gathering data to categorize and quantify people or events. Hypothetically, people’s responses to factual survey questions can be independently verified and have right and wrong answers. Examples of what objective survey questions cover are things like how often someone exercises, where they were born, and what their purchase habits are.

Attitude questions, on the other hand, measure perceptions, feelings, and judgements. These are things that cannot be observed or objectively assessed because they are based on what individuals think or experience. Some examples of what subjective survey questions might cover include favorite brands, overall experience at a restaurant, or reasons for not voting for a certain candidate. With subjective survey questions, standardization is critical to ensure that people are interpreting and understanding the questions in the same way.

The type of questions you choose will be influenced by the objective of your overall survey. The question type also has an impact the response format (e.g. agree—disagree versus single-answer multiple choice).

These two types of survey questions produce different kinds of data. Understanding the difference and how to treat each one will ensure you are producing meaningful information.

3

Ask questions people can answer.

This seems obvious, yet there are surveys filled with questions that participants are unequipped to respond to. There are three difficulties people have when answering survey questions:

They don’t have the information. Most people cannot answer with any accuracy how many times they get up from their desk in a day, but they can give a vague indication (rarely, sometimes, often, never).

They had the information but have forgotten. Some people might know their exact income from two years ago, but most won’t. Avoid asking questions that rely on long-term memory or calculations.

They have difficulty placing events in time. Participants may remember the last time they went to the movie theater, but they won’t remember whether it was six months ago or eight. If you must include questions that rely on long-term memory, use memory aids and association, e.g. have them play out a scenario in their minds.

 

    Objective:

 

To learn whether water conservation warnings were effective.

Poor survey question: How much water did you use in your home last month?

Better question: In the last 30 days, how much water would you say your household used? (More than usual, less than usual, about the same as usual)


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4

Reduce the possibility people will try to serve their own interests.

Even in online surveys, people exhibit what social scientists call social desirability bias. This is the tendency for people to answer questions in socially acceptable ways. In some cases, it means overreporting good behaviors (‘I get up from my desk every hour’) or underreporting perceived negative behaviors (‘I drink alcohol once per week’).

Being aware of sensitive and taboo topics in the population you’re studying can help you anticipate these areas. To generate accurate responses, incorporate these strategies into the survey:

Include an introductory statement. Research shows that long preambles and concise questions can improve response rates. By explaining why you’re asking, you set up the question and help them understand the motivation behind it.

Example: To help us contextualize what you and your peers think about our new alcoholic beverage offerings, we’re going to ask a few questions about your alcohol consumption. How many alcoholic beverages have you drank in the last seven days? (0, 1—2, 3—5, 6+)

Emphasize the anonymity of the survey. People who are confident their responses won’t be identified are more likely to respond honestly.

Put sensitive and demographic questions at the end. Starting a survey with intimidating or demographic questions like age and income can put people off. Your first survey question should be interesting, light, and easy to answer. Once they’ve started, they’re more likely to finish—and answer more sensitive questions.

Stress the importance of accuracy. Discourage dishonest answers by outlining the end goal of the survey. People who believe their answers will help are more likely to be truthful.

5

Survey questions should be unambiguous.

Failing to write clear and specific questions can hinder your respondents’ ability to answer. The standard is that people should have a consistent understanding of what is being asked of them. If someone could interpret a question differently than you intended, the question can be improved.

Avoid ambiguities. Don’t take for granted that people know what you mean in a survey question.

Poor survey question: In the past month, how many times have you visited a doctor?

There are two ambiguities in this question. First is the time frame: does ‘in the past month’ refer to the last 30 days or the most recent calendar month? The second is ‘doctor’. There is a lot of room for interpretation—do nutritionists, spiritual healers, or psychologists count as doctors?

Better survey question: We would like to understand how often you have visited a licensed medical professional, including dentists, psychologists, chiropractors, and nutritionists. In the past 30 days, how many times have you visited a medical professional?

If you need to define a term, be sure to put it first. Most people stop paying attention after the question has been asked.

Vague survey question: How would you rate your health?

The understanding of ‘health’ isn’t consistent. Some people consider good health the absence of health conditions. Other people may be thinking about the extent to which they lead a healthy lifestyle.

Better survey question: Do you think you eat enough vegetables? (I eat plenty, I eat just enough, I could eat more, I don’t eat vegetables at all)

This question gets people to respond more directly to your interpretation of ‘health’: a healthy lifestyle. It may require asking more questions, but it will give you better data to work with.


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6

Pay close attention to the way you phrase your survey questions.

Here are six survey question examples that should be avoided for the best survey data:

Loaded question: Do you think there are more postgraduates (Master’s, PhD, MBA) because of the country’s weak economy?

The question also includes a false premise: the participant is required to agree that the economy is weak to answer. The question also imposes a causal relationship between the economy and postgraduate study that a person may not see. Loaded questions are inherently biased and push respondents into confirming a particular argument they may not agree with.

Double-barreled question: Would you like to be rich and famous?

Double-barreled questions are difficult for people to answer. A person might like to be rich but not famous and would thus have trouble responding to this question. Additionally, you don’t know whether they are responding to both parts of the question or just one.

Biased question: Do you agree that the President is doing a wonderful job on foreign policy?

Biased language that either triggers emotional responses or imposes your opinion can influence the results of your survey. Survey questions should be neutral, simple, and void of emotion.

Assumptive question: Do you have extra money after paying bills that you invest?

This question assumes that the participant has extra money after paying bills. When a person reads a question they feel is irrelevant to him or her, it can lead to attrition from the survey. This is why Logic Jump is useful—surveys should adapt to respondents’ answers so they can skip questions that don’t apply to them.

This question would be better asked in two parts: do you have extra money after paying bills? (If yes: Do you invest the extra money you have after paying bills?

Second-hand knowledge question: Does your community have a problem with crime?

Not only are ‘crime’ and ‘problem’ vague, it’s challenging for a layperson to report on something related to the community-at-large. The responses to the question wouldn’t be reliable. Stick to asking questions that cover people’s first-hand knowledge.

If you are trying to understand the prevalence of criminal acts, it would be better to ask: In the past 12 months, have you been the victim of a crime?

Hypothetical questions: If you received a $10,000 bonus at work, would you invest it?

People are terrible at predicting future behavior, particularly in situations they’ve never encountered. Behavior is deeply situational, so what a person might do upon receiving a bonus could depend on whether they had credit card debt, whether they needed to make an immediate purchase, the time of year, and so on.

Final Thoughts

“The goal of writing a survey question is for every potential respondent to interpret it in the same way, be able to respond accurately, and be willing to answer,” explains Tammy Duggan-Herd, PhD, a psychology researcher-turned-marketer.

She explains that poorly written survey questions don’t measure what they think they do.

“Always evaluate questions for yourself and make adjustments where you see fit to get to the heart of what you want to know,” says Duggan-Herd.

Focus on creating great survey questions, and you’ll get the answers and insights you need to achieve your goals.

 


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