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The art and science of writing survey questions – do’s and don’ts

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Probably the hardest part of surveying is coming up with the right questions and finding the right words to do so. What you ask is a matter of understanding the psychology of your target audience. Wording your questions is a different matter. It requires talent, skills and practice (and lots of it). So let’s share the knowledge and give you some tips and best practices to help you write better survey questions which in turn will improve survey response rates significantly. 

A good survey question is relevant, well-written, easy to answer and brings forth valuable data for your research. Here are 7 essential tips for writing survey questions.

1. Avoid complex questions

Conciseness benefits readability. The less words you need the better. If you’re not very good at writing, it might be a good idea to get help from a professional copywriter. They will go through the questions, making sure every word is in its right place. Also, they have a keen eye for spotting any grammatical errors or typos you may have left – these really hurt the survey’s credibility. Alternatively, you could simply use one of our survey templates, created by professional market researchers.

2. Limit the scope of questions

Being concise also implies that you limit the scope of each question to one specific issue. Double barreled questions are a definite no-go! The word “and” is often an indicator of double-barreled questions so make sure before launching the survey that each question touches upon one topic, and one topic only. Don’t leave anything open for interpretation! Again, a survey checkup by a professional market research expert may prove helpful.

The importance of keeping your questionnaires brief cannot be overstated. Most survey tools offer branching and page display logic making it easy to automatically skip irrelevant questions.

3. Only ask questions you don’t already know the answer too

Sounds obvious, right? It is! And yet a lot of surveys, especially customer satisfaction surveys, go against this principle. Companies already know a lot about their target audience through social media, Customer Relation Management systems and loyalty cards, however, they hardly make use of the data in surveys. Think about it, how many times have you been asked to fill out your name, age and gender in a survey? Surely, most companies know who their customers are by now!

Our point is, don’t make a survey overly long with useless questions you already know the answer too. Most retail stores keep track of everything we buy, so refrain from asking respondents to name their latest purchase. Losing all unnecessary questions opens up a ton of space and time you can use for questions that will actually be bringing something new and valuable to the table. Remember, survey length is the number one reason respondents drop out.

4. Split up long matrix survey questions

Matrix questions – multiple questions presented on a grid – are great because they group together numerous questions on one topic. For survey creators they are easy to write. for respondents they are generally easy to interpret and answer since the scales and answer options stay the same across all items.

Still, caution is advised. Because of their visual presentation, matrix questions have the tendency to become very long and wide very quickly. While this may not seem this big of a deal on a desktop, it definitely is a problem on tablet or phone (incidentally, 1 in 4 respondents use a mobile device). Having to scroll down too much is another reason for mobile respondents to drop out of the survey. So make sure you limit the number of matrix questions. Test your survey on a phone before launching. If one or more matrix questions are hard to complete, simply cut them in two or more separate questions.

5. Limit the number of response options

Multiple choice questions should have no more than 5 or 6 options so as not to make it too hard on respondents. When working with categories, use non-overlapping equal categories. In other words, categories are equally wide and each data point can only fall in one category. For example good age categories are ‘18-24’, ‘25-34’, ‘35-44’, etc.

6. Add ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Not applicable’ to response options

By adding ‘Don’t know’ or ‘Not Applicable’ to multiple choice questions respondents can add their own answer or indicate that they simply don’t know the answer. ‘Other’ gives respondents the chance to add their own input, offering a great learning opportunity for your business. In any case, these options make sure that there is a suitable answer for everyone, increasing the quality of the survey data.

7. Be creative and use the right tone

The manner in which questions are worded has an impact on the response rate. If you try to keep things surprising and fresh for respondents, chances are they will complete the survey; if it’s a boring, dull survey they will probably lose interest. For example, if you want to know respondents’ favorite color you could put: “What’s your favorite color?” However, it’s more fun to put it like this: “Say you’re invited to a TV show tonight, what color shirt would you wear?”

Alternatively, if customers give bad scores for service, show them that you really care by shifting the tone of voice. “Oh, that’s too bad! We are really trying our best. Could you give us some tips to improve our service?” is probably more engaging than “What can we do better?“.

A note on open questions:

Quantitative research is all about closed questions that can easily be presented in charts and graphs. However, a metric becomes meaningful only when you add context. Open questions do that for you. Take the Net Promoter Score, for example. In itself, the score doesn’t reveal all that much. It’s when you ask people to motivate their score that you can learn valuable lessons.

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