Writing Survey Questions with Common Sense

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Posted Jan 03, 2018
Cori Sheperis

A little common sense goes a long way in market research, especially when designing survey questions.  Here are some simple tips that every researcher, from novice to expert, should follow when writing questions and corresponding answers for a survey.

Ask one question in one question

Combining two or more questions into one can be confusing for you and the respondent. If you ask Is this product appealing and useful? with only a yes or no option, some problems are bound to arise. A respondent may find the product to be both appealing and useful, so they will simply answer yes.  However, if a respondent finds the product appealing but not useful (or vice versa), neither yes or no accurately captures the respondent’s true feelings leaving you with invalid data. To avoid this issue, never ask more than one question in one question. The double-barreled question in this example should be split into 2 separate questions:  Is this product appealing? and Is this product useful?.

When in doubt, give an out

If you don’t think you can come up with all possible answer options to a multiple-choice question, don’t force respondents into choosing among only the options you pre-populated.  Provide “other” and/or “none of the above” answer options. If you are using a dichotomous question with only two response alternatives (yes or no, agree or disagree, etc.), consider adding a neutral alternative such as “no opinion”, “don’t know”, or “undecided”. Sometimes the underlying decision-making process may reflect some level of uncertainty which can best be captured by multiple-choice responses.

Write the way you talk

Surveys are meant to draw meaningful responses from the people taking your survey. When you have an actual conversation with someone in real time they are more at ease and will give you better responses. Write as if you are talking with the respondent and not at the respondent. Pretend as if you are having a casual dialogue that allows the respondent to feel as though they are speaking to an actual person one-on-one.  It is also nice to start a survey with a succinct but general welcome or introduction and close with a thank you or note of appreciation just as you would if you were speaking with someone on the phone or in person. Keep sensitive or embarrassing questions until later in the survey after you have developed a rapport with the respondent. After all, you would never ask someone you just met a deeply personal question; that would come later - after you had covered some simple and easy “getting to know you” questions.

Avoid corporate lingo

Don’t bore respondents with corporate language or acronyms which may be common stance in the board room, but Greek to all others. Explain topics in terms they will understand – the simpler, the better. Even including unique acronyms with the words spelled out in parenthesis can cause confusion or feel foreign and it might be better to avoid including it at all.  After you write a question, ask yourself if your mother or 10-year-old nephew would understand it and if it is even necessary to include your corporate terminology. Questions should be easily understood by anyone outside of your specific business or industry.

Mind the gap and don’t overlap

If you are giving range options for questions, make sure you are not allowing overlap. If you ask How many hours of tv do you watch in a typical day? and provide the following ranges:




7 or more

Which answer option would you choose if you watch 2 hours of TV in a typical day: 0-2 or 2-4? You’ve provided options that overlap leaving the respondent confused and forced into an answer that will give you inaccurate data. Make sure you mind the gap between answer options so people can easily and accurately answer.

The Takeaway

While not everyone is a market research expert, some simple tips and common sense will help guide you on a path to market research success. When in doubt remember not to over complicate things, if you feel a question should be split in two, then go for it. Always make sure your respondents have answers they can choose to get out of, don't put them in a box by not including "other" or "none of the above".  Lastly, make sure when designing a survey you write the way you speak. The best way to get great responses is to be simple and conversational.

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