Online Surveys = Ongoing Insights

Words Speak Louder Than Numbers

Words Speak Louder Than Numbers

Words speak louder than numbers.

Imagine this: You go furniture shopping with your friend Angela. “So,” Angela says,  “what do you think of this lamp?” You shrug and reply, “2.”

Okay, let’s be honest, the above scenario is unlikely. First of all, you know better than to go shopping with Angela–she has terrible taste and is incredibly indecisive. Secondly, very few people actually answer opinion questions with numbers in real life. The only time we really do that is on questionnaires.

A questionnaire can be thought of as a conversation between the person asking the questions and the person answering them. We don’t talk in numbers, and we shouldn’t survey with them either. But coming up with a range of word labels to go along with the numbered responses on a survey question can be tricky.

For example, take the following question…

Numbered, multiple-choice online survey question.

If you give someone a survey with the question to the right, odds are they’re not going to have a clue what you’re really asking, or how to respond.  The answer will be more reliable for you, and less stressful for your respondent, if you include some descriptive words along with numbers.

The easiest place to start labeling your options is at the endpoints. Our question is about approachability, so a good label for “5” is “extremely approachable,” and a good label for “1” is “not at all approachable.” This is just one option; the important thing is that the endpoints are the extremes of your scale–there should be no higher/bigger/stronger description than what you use for 5, and no lower/smaller/weaker description than what you use for 1.

So now that leaves us just 2, 3, and 4 to label. The midpoint of the scale (in this case “3”) should be just that, a midpoint. It’s best to have it represent moderation, rather than neutrality or ambivalence. “2” and “4” should be a bit less and a bit more, respectively, than the midpoint—but less than the extremes.

Usually, if you have a 5-point scale (like we have here) the easiest fix is the following:

4    =    “very <insert adjective here>”
3    =     “moderately <insert adjective here>”
2    =    “slightly <insert adjective here>”.

Unfortunately, these labels don’t always fit, so sometimes you’ll have to use your creativity. (Or use our Question Bank feature and let us do the heavy-lifting for you!) One more word of warning: Whatever adjective you use in your answer choices, (in our example the adjective is “approachable”) try to keep it consistent so people taking your questionnaire don’t get confused.

So, using these rules, this is the correct way to ask the question…

Multiple-choice, labeled online survey questionThis format ensures that the people answering your survey know exactly what you’re asking. Even better, it helps you to make sense of the responses that you get back. An average response of “2” suddenly translates into the easily understandable label of “slightly approachable.” This can be a huge help if you’re using questions to generate performance feedback for colleagues.

Letting someone know in a performance review that they’re a 2 in approachability might not hit home. Telling someone that people think they’re only “slightly approachable” is more likely to make an impact.

Stumped on how to label the numbered answer choices to your particular question? Let us know in the comments section below!

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  • love this exercise.

    • Hanna J

      Thanks Amar! We love it too.

      • Ram Kumar

        Absolutely right! We would get real answers only if the respondent understands the questions. Otherwise the survey will not be effective. Thanks a lot.

        • Hanna J

          Exactly! Thanks Ram, we’re so glad you agree :)

          • great future ahead

  • Shafeeq MBA

    Very good idea. Thanks

  • Eduard

    Of course we would like the exactly responses, it will be clear

  • Eduard de la rosa

    Its a really good exercise

  • I like this methodology its very helfull.

  • I would get real answer if the respondent understand the question.


  • Nishant Jain

    good one!

  • It seems to me that you certainly have the right idea with this notion of yours

    • Greatly positive!

    • Hanna J

      Ken – Thanks for your support and for the feedback! We hope you have a great week.

  • Tara

    I was just takling about this problem at work today. We had to find a ‘creative’ mid point description on a 5 point scale. What we ened up with was ok, but not as good as your ‘moderate’ suggestion. Will know how to deal with this next time. Thanks!

    • Hanna J

      Tara – Great! So glad we could help. We’ll be blogging about more methodology tips and suggestions, so stay tuned!

  • Am in love with this site

    • Hanna J

      Ebele – Thanks! We think you’re pretty great too. Have a great week!

  • Ruchi Sharma

    This is a helpful note, I liked and understood more about choosing an option.

    • Hanna J

      Ruchi – We’re so glad you liked our post! We’ll be featuring lots of methodology posts and tips in the future, so stay tuned for more. Thanks, and have a great week!

  • Yiannis

    Excellent exercise. Instead of “Slightly approachable” I would have used “Only slightly approachable”. I feel this would differentiate more from the “Moderately approachable” option.

    • Hanna J

      Hi Yiannis – Thanks for your feedback. Our survey methodologists and others have done quite a bit of research on the subject, and these labels are statistically proven to result in the most reliable (least biased) results. But of course, you are always free to label your survey however you think makes the most sense for your survey and audience. Thanks, and have a great day!



    • Hanna J

      Thank YOU Julius! We appreciate you :)

  • Adeniyi Matthew Bolakale

    This sound interesting. How I which to receive more of this to widening my understanding.

    • Hanna J

      Hi Adeniyi – We’ll continue to post about tips, suggestions, and components of a good survey. Check back in to our blog for more information, or create a free account to receive our newsletter. Thanks, and have a great day!

  • Great article. I have never thought about this, as I actually thought that a number would be easier to decide a number than have to think about the content of a text.

    Your examples are perfect though, I now understand how words can be more efficient. Thank you.

    I am in the beginning of building a new website – – is it possible to implement a survey from SurveyMonkey into our own website, and show live results?

    • Hanna J

      Hi Ruben – Yes, there is! Just go to collect responses, click the “add a collector” button, and select “website.” This will generate html code which you can embed into your site. Then, click on the “change settings” button on the left, and under the green heading which says “display survey results,” click “yes.” Hope that helps! Let us know if you have any more questions!

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