4 Hazards to Avoid in Question Wording

Question wording is the translation of the desired question content and structure into words that respondents can clearly and easily understand.  Deciding on question wording is perhaps the most critical and difficult task in developing a questionnaire.  If a question is worded poorly, respondents may refuse to answer it (item nonresponse) or may answer it incorrectly (response error).  Unless the respondents and the researcher assign the exact same meaning to the question, the results will be seriously biased or inaccurate.  By avoiding these 4 hazards in question wording, you can minimize these risks.

Avoid Leading/ Biasing Questions: A leading question is one that clues the respondent to what answer is desired or leads the respondent to answer in a certain way.  Some respondents tend to agree with whatever way the question is leading them to answer.  This tendency is known as yea-saying and results in acquiescence bias. For example, if you were to mention that most plastic does not get recycled, most people would answer that environmentally responsible restaurants should not be providing plastic silverware since that clearly is not something an “environmentally responsible restaurant” should do.

Avoid asking:

Do you think environmentally responsible restaurants should provide plastic silverware even though 85% of the world’s plastic is not recycled?

Ask:

Do you think restaurants should provide plastic silverware?

Avoid Generalizations and Estimates: Questions should be specific, not general. Questions should also be worded so that the respondent does not have to make generalizations or compute estimates. Don’t make your respondents do math when answering surveys. If the questions are asked appropriately, the researcher can perform the calculations after the data has been collected.  Let’s say you are trying to learn how much people spend on 1 cell phone per year, you should break that down into questions that are relatable to the cadence in which people normally pay and how their plan is structured (family plans, shared plans, etc.).

Avoid asking:

How much do you spend on your individual cell phone plan per year?

Ask:

How much is your monthly cell phone plan?

And

How many cell phones are on your monthly cell phone plan?

 Avoid Implicit Assumptions: Questions should not be worded so that the answer is dependent upon implicit assumptions about what will happen consequently. Implicit assumptions are assumptions that are left out of the question entirely. If the United States were to move toward a universal healthcare system, there will likely be consequences that arise from this change.  There could be an increase in taxes to fund such a system or a potential decline in the quality of services. By not making the assumptions explicit, it will result in overestimating the respondents’ support for universal healthcare.

Avoid asking:

Are you in favor of universal healthcare?

Ask:

Are you in favor of universal healthcare if it would result in an increase in personal taxes?

 Avoid Implicit Alternatives: An alternative that is not explicitly expressed in the options is an implicit alternative.  Making an implied alternative explicit may increase the percentage of people selecting that alternative. If you were to ask about preference for flying short distances, the alternative of driving is only implicit.  A better way to ask the question is to clearly state the alternative of driving.

Avoid asking:

Do you like to fly when traveling short distances?

Ask:

Do you liked to fly when traveling short distances, or would you rather drive? 

Key Takeaway

The purpose of a questionnaire is to design questions that respondents can openly and honestly answer, thereby giving you pertinent and accurate data from which to draw conclusions. Question wording is key to meeting this objective. Of course, in addition to the design of each question, it is the overall questionnaire design and the way the survey is administered that will result in reliable and unbiased insights.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cori Sheperis
With a persistent appetite for learning and curious nature, Cori finds herself at home in the world of market research. She holds an MBA and has enjoyed over 15 years in various marketing, product development and consumer research roles. Her inquisitive nature flows into her personal life where she can be found venturing into as many new countries and cultures as possible.