Writing Good Survey Questions

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If you take the time to write good survey questions, you’ll be well on your way to getting the reliable responses you need to reach your goals.

The first choice you’ll have to make is what type of question to use. We offer both open-ended questions that ask respondents to write comments, essays, or any other kind of free-response text, as well as closed-ended questions that give respondents a fixed set of options to choose from. These closed-ended response choices can be simple yes/no options, multiple choice options, likert rating scales, and more.

But the decisions don’t end there! Not only do you have to pick what type of question to ask, you have to decide how to ask it. Below are 3 basic tips for how to create great survey questions. Read through these and you’ll be writing survey questions like a pro in no time.

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Tips for Writing Good Survey Questions:

1. Speak Their Language:

Keeping language simple and direct in general is very important. Talk to people on their level. Avoid grammatical messiness like double negatives and off-putting vocabulary like industry jargon or overly technical concepts. If you are going to reference a concept that your respondents may be unfamiliar with, don’t just gloss over it. Remember, these people are interrupting their busy days to do your survey and they’ve got a lot on their minds. For example, take the question:

How likely would you be to enroll in CookieDirect?

This question could be made better by simply providing a few extra details. For example:

CookieDirect is a baked goods delivery service that sends a new type of fresh baked cookies straight to your door every Monday night at 7pm. How likely would you be to enroll in CookieDirect?

If you don’t explain what you’re talking about, you risk respondents getting frustrated and quitting your survey, or, even worse answering the question randomly. The former will raise the cost of getting your data, and the latter will lower your data quality.

2. Keep it Simple:

Always ask about just one idea at a time. If you ask about multiple ideas in the same question it makes it hard for your respondents to answer and impossible for you to interpret their answers. For example, take the question:

How organized and interesting was the speaker?

If a respondent answers “moderately” to this question, what does that mean? Moderately organized AND moderately interesting? Extremely interesting but only slightly organized? Or vice versa. This confusion on how to interpret the answer becomes a real problem when you want to give feedback to your speaker. Do you tell her to be more organized or more interesting next time? End all of this confusion simply by writing two questions instead of one. For example:

How organized was the speaker?

How interesting was the speaker?

Now you have separate ratings for each idea—this makes providing feedback quicker and easier for your respondents, and it makes that feedback easier for the speaker to respond to. A win-win scenario.

3. Balance Not Bias:

Writing survey questions that bias respondents toward one answer violates a survey’s objectivity and biases the answers you get to your questions. For example:

We think our customer service representatives are really awesome. How awesome do you think our customer service representatives are?

This question will likely pressure your respondents into answering more favorably than they actually feel about the customer service representatives. How do you fix it?

To write a more effective question, try to focus on more specific qualities (“awesomeness” is a pretty vague generalization), it will dilute the power of sweeping generalizations. For example:

How helpful do you think our customer service representatives are?

Even with this change, however, the question is still slightly biased toward positive responses. It’s best if you can avoid inserting your own opinions into the question altogether, as these opinions will bias the answers. This, however, is not always possible. In that case, try to keep the survey balanced as a whole. Frame some of your survey questions in a positive way and some in a negative way. For example:

On average, how helpful are our customer service representatives?

On average, how frustrated do you get when speaking to our customer service representatives?

Keeping the tone of your survey balanced and even-handed will ensure that you get people’s “true” attitudes instead of what they think you want to hear. This will help you make the right decisions, and alert you when you have a problem.

Additional Resources:

Writing a good survey is just one part of getting to the insights you need. For more information about survey design and creation, check out how to create surveys and how to plan for and conduct surveys. Also look for finer points about survey design in our survey methodology blog.

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