Five basic principles for writing good questionnaires

At Norstat, we have seen all the common mistakes in questionnaire design, regardless whether they were telephone, face-to-face or online interviews. Here you go with five basic principles every researcher should follow to become better at writing questionnaires.

1. Be comprehensible

Use clear and comprehensible language to ease the cognitive burden for the respondents. Each and every question reduces the respondent’s capability of concentration. Therefore, if you want to keep their attention, the questions should be as comprehensible as possible. This is especially true if you have less educated people in your sample.

2. Be clear

It sounds obvious, but questions need to be clear and unambiguous. Using vague buzzwords, unfamiliar terms or everyday language can blur your results. Even though respondents may think they understand what you mean, everyone will have something different in mind, when answering your question.

But be careful! Sometimes being clear runs contrary to being comprehensible, especially if you try to be overly precise. Being clear should never lead to these extremely long and awkward questions that nobody will read thoroughly, especially when completing the questionnaire on a mobile device. Always keep the respondent in mind!

3. Be neutral

Avoid suggestive questions or unbalanced answering options. The respondents may not necessarily mind or even notice, but your results may then lean towards one or another answering option. In this case, you are not measuring the objective facts, but implicitly asking for approval of your subjective standpoint. Your data will be biased. Hence, you should always take a neutral standpoint and try to be as objective as possible when writing a questionnaire.

4. Operationalise

Very often, you will want to find out about attitudes and behaviors that can’t be evaluated directly. Try to operationalise these concepts and translate them into clear and tangible indicators. Instead of asking directly whether someone is “lifestyle oriented”, rather ask for specific products or activities, the respondent may have had contact with during the last weeks. Not only will it be easier for the respondent to find an answer but also lead to much more accurate results.

5. Mind the order

Any clues given at the beginning of the questionnaire may affect the answers to questions that follow. The first statements presented to a respondent may affect the respondent’s choice of an answering option. This is what psychologists call priming, an effect of short-term memory on our decision-making. Therefore, if possible, try to randomise the order of your questions and statements. If you can’t do that, at least try to optimise the order to get natural, unbiased feedback.

While there are certainly many more factors to consider, it’s surprising how often these five fundamental principles are overlooked in research practice. If you would like to know more about how to make good questionnaires, feel free to contact us. We will gladly help you get started!

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