There’s a lot to consider when thinking about how to write survey questions. From the question type you use, to question length and order. The best thing to thing to keep in mind is your respondent’s point of view.
If they don’t understand what you’re asking, the results you collect are all but useless.
Top tips for writing survey questions
1. Keep questions short
Good survey questions are short and simple. Longer questions can cause survey fatigue and will encourage respondents to satisfice or leave the survey.
If you need to use longer questions, do so strategically.
Note: Satisficing is where a respondent only satisfies the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a goal. In the case of surveys, satisficing would be submitting a response, regardless of accuracy.
The most common occurrence of this is where respondents select the same option for all scale questions (aka ‘straight-lining).
2. Limit the number of questions you ask
Don’t ask too many questions. Stick to those that contribute the most to your overall research goals. The longer a survey is, the lower your completion and response rates will be.
This should also be applied to your answer options, too many can be jarring for respondents. You could consider using an ‘other’ text box.
3. Don't rely on respondents' recall
Questions that require people to recall information can be taxing and produce inaccurate results or encourage response bias.
Recall to past questions
Respondents may find it hard to recall previous answers, especially in larger projects with multiple pages. So, if you do need them to remember a previous answer, make sure it was from a recent question.
E.g. If they’re on question 15, don’t expect them to remember their answer for question 2.
Recall to past events
It’s best to only ask questions about events that have occurred recently in your respondent’s life. The further in the past an event took place, the less likely they are to recall their experience completely.
E.g. Feedback on a product purchase from last week will be more reliable than feedback on one purchased last year.
4. All context needed to answer should be in the question
Each question should only focus on one subject and contain all the context respondents will need to answer.
I.e. Any specifics they need to address should be raised within the question itself (behaviors, events, dates, and times).
Bad Question: What is your income?
As you can see, the question above is far too general. Who’s income? What time frame?
Good Question: What was your yearly household salary in 2016?
The information respondents need to answer here is all included in the question. This is to say, the total yearly income of their household for the year 2016.
A good survey question means the same thing to every respondent.
5. Avoid loaded words and phrases
Certain words trigger emotional responses, create bias, or cause offense. These loaded words and phrases influence a respondent’s answer choices, which will affect your results.
The language you use should be as neutral as possible and should be free of any social or cultural connotations.
6. Don’t write leading questions
Leading questions are those loaded with emotional or persuasive language to sway respondents towards an answer.
Poor Question: Do you have any concerns about your line manager?
The wording used above will cause respondents to focus on concerns or problems they have with their line manager. In other words, they’re being led towards a negative answer.
Good Question: Describe your working relationship with your line manager.
This version does not lead the respondent towards an answer. Instead, they’re encouraged to provide an organic response.
7. Ask someone to review your questions
Ask a friend or colleague to look over your survey questions before you share them. Any feedback they can give you on question wording or context can help you create a more effective project.
In a perfect world, you’d launch a pilot version of the survey first. Then you’d be able to compare your expectations against your findings and make improvements.
8. Ensure question order is logical
Group your questions by topic and create a clear logical structure for your survey. Begin with the more simple and interesting questions to build trust with your respondents.
Leave the more complex, demographic, or sensitive questions to the end of your project. By the time your respondents reach them, they’re more likely to complete your survey than leave.
9. Don’t overuse question types
Respondents don’t want to see five pages of the same question type. By using a few varying survey question types, you make the experience more engaging for respondents.
Of course, the format you use will depend on the type of question you’re asking. It makes no sense to use a rating scale for a multiple-choice question.
Learn more about survey design best practices.
10. Ask one question at a time
Double Barrelled Questions are where two questions are asked in the same space.
E.g. Was our customer service team helpful and friendly?
The question above is asking two things. Was the customer service helpful? And were they friendly?
The problem here is that a customer may feel they were helpful, but not friendly. So, how are they supposed to answer?
This is a simple issue to avoid, but it’s a good example of why you should ask someone to review your survey.
11. Be wary of question dichotomy
Dichotomous questions are those with only two possible answers. Usually, you’d see this is in close-ended yes/no questions, which is fine.
However, it’s possible to frame questions that aren’t naturally dichotomous as though they are. And if you want to write good survey questions, you need to avoid doing this.
E.g. Do you think of football players as being independent agents or as employees of their team?
The question above creates a situation where football players are ‘independent agents’ OR ’employees of their team’. But are these two labels mutually exclusive?
In reality, both options are true. The question fails to consider that football players can operate as ‘independent agents’ AND ’employees of their team’.
You have to trust in respondents to make their own assessments. Avoid creating a ‘this or that’ scenario.
When you’re thinking about how to write survey questions, you must remember to be clear, concise, and specific.
Making respondents think too much about how to answer is a sure-fire way to cause drop-outs.
As a rule of thumb, all your questions should contribute to your research aims. So, don’t ask any unrelated questions just because you want the data. Respondents tend to disengage if you ask more than they expect to be asked.
You can read more about managing respondent expectations in our article on how to conduct survey research.
We also have some tips to help you write survey answers, so why not take a look?