Five Basic Principles for Writing Good Questionnaires

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At Norstat, we have seen all the common mistakes in questionnaire design, regardless whether they were telephone, face-to-face or online interviews. Here you go with five basic principles every researcher should follow to become better in writing questionnaires.

1. Be comprehensible!

Use a clear and comprehensible language to ease the cognitive burden for the respondents. Each and every question reduces the respondent’s capability of concentration. Therefore, if you want to keep their attention, the questions should be as comprehensible as possible. This is especially true if you have less educated people in your sample.

2. Be clear!

It sounds obvious, but questions need to be clear and unambiguous. Using vague buzz words, unfamiliar terms or everyday language can blur your results. Even though respondents may think they understand what you mean, everyone will have something different in mind, when answering your question.

But be careful! Sometimes being clear runs contrary to being comprehensible, especially if you try to be overly precise. Being clear should never lead to these extremely long and awkward questions that nobody will read thoroughly, especially when completing the questionnaire on a mobile device. Always keep the respondent in mind!

3. Be neutral!

Avoid suggestive questions or unbalanced answering options. The respondents may not necessarily mind or even notice, but your results may then lean towards one or another answering option. In this case you are not measuring the objective facts, but implicitly asking for approval of your subjective standpoint. Your data will be biased. Hence, you should always take a neutral standpoint and try to be as objective as possible when writing a questionnaire.

4. Operationalize!

Very often, you will want to find out about attitudes and behaviours that can’t be evaluated directly. Try to operationalize these concepts and translate them into clear and tangible indicators. Instead of asking directly whether someone is “lifestyle oriented”, rather ask for specific products or activities, the respondent may have had contact with during the last weeks. Not only will it be easier for the respondent to find an answer but also lead to much more accurate results.

5. Mind the order!

Any clues given at the beginning of the questionnaire may affect the answers to questions that follow. Or the first statements presented to a respondent may affect the respondent’s choice of an answering option. This is what psychologists call priming, an effect of the short-term memory on our decision making. Therefore, if possible, try to randomize the order of your questions and statements. If you can’t do that, at least try to optimize the order to get natural, unbiased feedback.

There are definitely many more things to keep in mind, but you would be surprised how often even these five basic principles are neglected in research practice.