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5 Common Survey Question Mistakes That’ll Ruin Your Data

5 Common Survey Question Mistakes That’ll Ruin Your Data

research_dataYou may already know the questions you want to ask in your survey, but how you write your survey questions can be the difference between a good and a bad survey.

How a question is written can alter your respondent’s perspective on an issue as well as unintentionally force them to answer a question inaccurately.

A well-written survey question allows your respondents to answer truthfully without being pulled to one side or the other. In other words, the questions shouldn’t leave them feeling confused about which option to select.

So before you put pen to paper and start writing your questions, be sure to avoid these 5 common survey mistakes:

1) Don’t write leading questions

Top survey mistake #1: Questions should never be worded in a way that’ll sway the reader to one side of the argument. Usually you can tell a question is leading if it includes non-neutral wording.

Bad Question: How short was Napoleon?

The word “short” immediately brings images to the mind of the respondent. If the question is rewritten to be neutral-sounding, it can eliminate the leading bias.

Good Question: How would you describe Napoleon’s height?

Leading questions can also be the cause of unnecessary additions to the question.

Bad Question: Should concerned parents use infant car seats?

The term “concerned parents” leads the respondent away from the topic at hand. Instead, stay focused by only including what is needed in the question.

Good Question: Do you think special car seats should be required for infant passengers?

2) Avoid loaded questions

Sometimes questions will be written in a way that forces the respondent into an answer that doesn’t accurately reflect their opinion or situation. This top survey mistake will throw off your survey respondents and is one of the leading contributors to respondents abandoning surveys.

Bad Question: Where do you enjoy drinking beer?

By answering this question, the respondent is announcing that they drink beer. However, many people dislike beer or will not drink alcohol and therefore can’t answer the question truthfully.

Usually, loaded questions are best avoided by pretesting your survey to make sure every respondent has a way to answer honestly.

In the case of the example above, you may choose to ask a preliminary question on whether the respondent drinks beer and use skip logic to let people who don’t drink beer pass over the questions that don’t apply to them.

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3) Stay away from double-barreled questions

What is a double-barreled question? It’s one of the most common survey mistakes. And it’s when you force respondents to answer two questions at once. It’s also a great way to ruin your survey results.

Survey questions should always be written in a way that only one thing is being measured. If a single question has two subjects, it’s impossible to tell how the respondent is weighing the different elements involved.

Bad Question: How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the pay and work benefits of your current job?

In the case of the example above, it makes sense to break the question into two; satisfaction with pay and satisfaction with work benefits. Otherwise, some of your respondents will be answering the question while giving more weight to pay, and others will answer giving more weight to work benefits.

Good Questions: How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the pay of your current job?

How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the work benefits of your current job?

It’s also easy to double-barrel a question by giving more than one group for the respondent to consider.

Bad Question: How useful will this textbook be for students and young professionals in the field?

Now the respondent is forced to give a single answer for both parties. Instead break the question into two; one measuring usefulness for students and one measuring usefulness for professionals.

Good Questions: How useful will this textbook be for students?

How useful will this textbook be for young professionals in the field?

4) Absolutely do not use absolutes in questions

Absolutes in questions force respondents into a corner where they can’t give useful feedback. These questions usually have the options Yes/No and include wording such as “always,” “all,” “every,” “ever,” etc.

Bad Question: Do you always eat breakfast? (Yes/No)

Read literally, the example above would force almost any respondent to answer “No.” Even then, there would be some respondents who would interpret the question as asking whether they always eat a full breakfast when they have a chance.

The inflexibility of absolutes makes questions too rigid to be used in a survey. Instead, the question should have a variety of options that people will feel more comfortable choosing from.

Good Question: How many days a week do you usually eat breakfast? (Every day/ 5-6 days/ 3-4 days/ 1-2 days/ I usually don’t eat breakfast)

5) Be clear by speaking your respondent’s language

Regardless of who’s taking your survey, use clear, concise, and uncomplicated language while trying to avoid acronyms, technical terms or jargon that may confuse your respondents. And make sure to provide definitions or examples if you need to include tricky terms or concepts. That way, you can be certain that almost anybody can answer your questions easily, and that they’ll be more inclined to complete your survey.

Bad Question: Do you own a tablet PC?

Good Question: Do you own a tablet PC? (e.g. iPad, Android tablet)

Bad Question: What was the state of the cleanliness of the room?

Good Question: How clean was the room?

Generally, you should strive to write questions using language that is easily understood. Certain sample groups, however, may have a knowledge base that can make the use of more difficult terms and ideas a viable option.

Ask yourself if your respondents have a deep understanding of certain events, terms, and issues dealt with in the survey. The more you can focus on writing good questions, as opposed to explaining things in common terms, the better.

For example, if you’re surveying patients in a hospital, you’ll want to avoid using medical jargon. However, if your survey sample is made up of doctors, it makes sense to ask more specialized questions and use higher level medical vocabulary.

By avoiding these five common survey-writing mistakes, your survey should run like a well-oiled machine, your data will be more accurate, and your respondents will exit your survey feeling great because they’ve shared honest and accurate feedback. Triple win! So put your writing cap on and get to creating those questions.

Having trouble thinking of the right thing to say? We’ve got lots of resources to help you out. Or get in touch with our on-site experts, who’ll design your survey for you.

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  • Linus D’Souza


  • betty

    What should i look for when observing a teacher who is busy teaching? May i please be give 10 things to look for.

  • Justin Donie

    I REALLY wish everyone who ever wrote a survey would read this article first. Maybe you can make it “step one” when new Survey Monkey members write their first survey. I see so many bad surveys, some from very “official” and “important” sources, that make many or all of these mistakes. It drives me nuts. “Why would you recommend our service to your friends?” … Well, first off, I wouldn’t, because it wasn’t very good. But I wasn’t given that survey option. “Which of the following is most important to you when buying aluminum siding?” Um … that I’ve never have purchased it … and don’t plan to.

    If survey writers did nothing but follow your five suggestions here, the average survey I am asked to take would get so much better. Bad questions, like the ones you note here, do create useless or at least badly flawed data, and you’re spot on with your advice. I’ve not chewed on this long enough to think if there might be a few more recommendations to add, but these five are a great start in the right direction. Thanks for this. I’m book marking it so I can share it with others!

    • KTsurveymonkey

      Thanks so much for the support, Justin! We definitley want to help out more folks create better surveys. Better surveys means better data! We’re constantly revamping our My Surveys page to provide helpful content for beginners, so featuring this there is a great idea! Happy surveying.

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