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How To NOT Write Your Online Survey Questions

How To NOT Write Your Online Survey Questions
double barreled survey questions

Spring break is around the corner and your just-barely-in-college teenager mentions that she’s thinking of going to Florida. Without you. You, being the supporting parent that you are, blurt out something like:

“Do you want to go to Florida and make me worry about you the whole time? Yes or no?”

“Well, no,” the kid (young woman?) succinctly tells you, but that doesn’t really tell you as much as you’d hoped.  When she responds, “no,” she might actually mean a variety of things…

  1. I very much would like to go to Florida, but I wouldn’t like you to worry.
  2. I actually don’t want to go to Florida because I hate the sunshine, but your worry is irrelevant.
  3. The whole Florida idea is actually kind of dumb and I didn’t really want to go, but I like when you worry, it makes me feel special!

And so on. As you can see, a simple yes or no answer doesn’t really tell you everything you need to know.

Questions with two parts imbedded in them (like trips to Florida and parental worry) are known as “double-barreled” questions. Although double-barreled questions may be helpful rhetorical devices for guilt tripping your kids (hey, we’re not judging)—they do not belong in surveys.

Were this uncomfortable paternal conversation a survey instead, it would be better to have two questions prepared:

  1. Do you want to go to Florida? (yes/no)
  2. Do you want me to worry about you the whole time? (yes/no)

Now, as a parent you might not be ready to hear the answers to those individual questions, but as a researcher trying to understand what people are thinking—you need to hear the truth.

Want even more richness? Instead of asking your two questions as yes/no questions, add the stem of “how much”:

  1. How much do you want to go to Florida?
  2. How much do you want me to worry about you the whole time?

Need help labeling response answers? Check out our blog post.

Want even more richness? Ask another “open-ended” question of “Why?” as a follow-up to your first question. And then analyze the results with our cool word cloud tool.

Just remember, save the double-barreled questions for parenting. Not for surveys.

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  • Sicco J Bier

    and worry in question two is ambiguous. Worry is good, it shows empathy 😉 I would typically fill out maximum worry in a how much question like this.

    The parent should be surveyed how much worry is desirable. The kid is best off with a yes/no question on “do you hope your parents care for your well-being?”. But then you need to define well-being.

    I once had a winter accident in one of my parent’s cars and the first question was “what is the condition of the car?” and the conclusion “make arrangements it gets to a garage”. Only next day they called and asked how I went through the ordeal. It did not matter, I had not picked up on the omission anyway as I knew I was being stupid driving around in the conditions as I did…

    • Hanna J

      Hi Sicco – Yikes! We hope you and your car are OK. Thanks for sharing. Have a great day.

  • long questions shouldn’t be used in your online survey

  • Great post. I wrote about the topic of double-barreled questions in October of 2013. I have some of my own findings listed for your readers to explore as well:

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