8 Tips for Writing Effective Survey Questions

Once you’ve identified the main objective for your online survey, the next step is to write your questions. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But beware. There are some common mistakes that are easy to make even on the simplest of questions.

Use the following list as your guide to help avoid these possible pitfalls.

1. Write questions that are simple and to the point.

Make your questions easy to understand by using simple language. The goal is to write a question that your reader will easily understand without having to reread it. Using everyday language is the best way to accomplish this. A good exercise to practice is to write questions that you could see yourself asking friends or colleagues.

2. Use words with clear meanings.

Avoid phrases that are left to the reader’s interpretation. Words like most, numerous, many, and several mean different things to different people. You want to use words that are more commonly understood, such as almost all, a majority of, almost none, and a few.

3. Limit the number of ranking options.

When you ask your respondents to rank items in order of preference or importance, try not to surpass six items. Asking them to rank a long list can result in an abandoned survey. If you need to get feedback on all the items on your list (and you have more than six,) consider making two questions out of the original one.

4. In a multiple choice question, cover all options without overlapping.

When you ask a multiple choice question that can only have one answer, give the respondent a list that covers all the options without overlapping. For example, if you asked the respondent to tell you his or her age, your choices should not be “18-25, 25-35, 35-45, over 45.” In this case, the 25- and 35-year-olds would have two choices, when they should have only one. This will skew your results.

5. Avoid double-barreled questions.

Asking double-barreled questions is a common mistake because it’s easy to do without realizing. Here’s an example of one: “How far would you be willing to drive for dinner and a movie?” This type of question is problematic because it asks the respondent to give one answer for two different questions. In the case of the example, someone might be willing to drive further to go to dinner than they would for a movie (or vice a versa.) By asking two different questions, you will get a much more accurate answer.

6. Offer an “out” for questions that don’t apply.

Some respondents can’t or won’t answer certain questions because they don’t have the experience or aren’t really sure how they want to respond. For these situations, you should offer an option for them to select “Does Not Apply” or “Don’t Know.”

If you are certain that a respondent is able to answer the question, for example if you ask someone who just purchased from your website, “How would you rate our website?” you don’t need to offer an “out.”

7. Avoid offering too few or too many options.

While it is difficult to put an exact number on how many items you can have in a list because it varies with each question, a good guide is to offer a complete list of the most likely choices and then provide an “other” option to collect data from the rest of the responses. For example, if you own a pet store and want to know what animals your customers own, you’ll want to include the top 8-10 most likely pets and not a list all 118 species sold in your store.

8. Make recall easy.

Avoid taxing your respondents by asking them to recall events in the distant past, especially if they are mundane, everyday events. While you may get a solid answer if you ask how many times someone has flown to Europe in the last year, it will be much less accurate if you ask how many ads for trips to Europe they have seen in the last year. Keep this formula in mind: more common events = shorter window of recall.

Once you’ve completed the questions for your survey, match them against this list and see how you did. Many times, small edits can make a world of difference. If a question is in need of a rewrite, it’s worth making the extra effort to get it right. Your time and the time of your customer is on the line so it makes sense to do all you can to ask questions that provide accurate, insightful responses.

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  1. John Penrose •

    All good stuff, but before you write the first survey question make sure you address two critical questions: objective and structure. What are you trying to learn (and from whom)? With your goal in mind, now consider structure. What are the dimensions that describe that goal. For example, service, food quality, atmosphere and cost would be good categories for a restaurant. Now, you can start survey questions that are focused on your goal and cover all the critical elements of the issue. Have fun!

  2. Hey there,
    I work for an herbal pet supplement microbusiness, and we love Constant Contact. I’ve been reading through some of these blog posts today, just to get my marketing juices flowing, and one thing i’m noticing is that it is unclear as to whether some of these services are actually available through Constant Contact, or whether I should be looking into further web application options. For example, this blog on surveys is so wonderfully informative, and at the end I am directed to sign up for Constant Contact to start a survey, but it is unclear to me whether Constant Contact actually offers a survey creation option. As another example, I just read another great CC blog in which the author encourages us to make a “landing page” for our customers to claim online offers. However, when I clicked that link, I was directed to another blog about marketing, not a link for creating a landing page…which leads me to believe that is not a CC feature. Which is totally fine, just confusing. Another link in that blog encourages us to use the “online registration tool” for events; but when I click on that link, it again just brings me to another blog not at all connected in content. So that also leads me to believe that CC does not offer an online registration tool; but is instead offering that I should use one of the many tools available online. Totally fine with me, just kind of confusing. Basically, I love your company, and I love how wonderful these blogs are, I just wish the links brought me either to a page explaining how to do it on CC, or to a page with a couple of online tools that you like that do what you’re advising.
    Thanks for reading my copious notes, and much gratitude for your free advice! Keep on excelling!

    • Dave Charest •

      Ashley, Thanks do much for taking the time to share this with us. We’re definitely in the process of making things less confusing. Your feedback here is very helpful.


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