10 Simple Tips for Writing Good Survey Questions

By: Amanda Barna and Michelle Henry

A survey is only as good as the questions it contains. One of the dangers when putting together a survey is not asking the right questions or asking them the right way which can result in data that cannot be used, or, even worse, can lead you in the wrong direction.

Here are 10 simple tips for writing good survey questions:

  1. Begin with the end in mind. Think about what you are going to do with the answers and how are you going to analyze the data. You can’t take action on responses to questions you didn’t ask.
  2. Write questions to your audience's level of understanding and avoid slang, jargon and trendy language. When writing survey questions for the general public, the rule is to write at the 6th grade level to insure a general understanding among all respondents.
  3. Avoid leading questions. These questions can lead people to one answer over another simply because of how it is worded. "You have heard of the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research, haven't you?"
  4. Beware of double-barreled and double negative questions. Questions that ask for one answer for two different questions such as "How would you rate the economy and job opportunities in Ohio?" are problematic. Not everyone will relate these two issues together so it is best to be asked in two separate questions. Double negatives can cause confusion and make respondents frustrated causing them to not complete the survey.
  5. It’s OK to relax your grammar- Relax your grammar a bit so your questions do not sound too formal. For instance, the word “who” is often acceptable when “whom” is technically correct.
  6. Offer an ‘out’ for questions that do not apply. Some respondents can't or won't answer certain questions, or there may be instances that the question does not apply to a respondent. Don’t force them to pick an answer, as they may opt out of completing the entire survey. Provide options such as neutral, or does not apply so the survey respondent will continue to the end.
  7. In multiple choice questions, cover all options without overlapping. Response categories should not overlap. "How many days in the last week did you exercise? 1-2, 2-3, 4 or more?" There are two possible response choices for those who have exercised twice.  What about those who have not exercised in the past week, how would they answer?
  8. Response choices should be balanced. There should be as many positive options as negative. "How satisfied are you with your job? Very satisfied, satisfied or somewhat satisfied? This question assumes that everyone is satisfied on some level, which usually is not the case.
  9. Avoid too many response choices. Survey questions that rank items by importance should not have more than 5-6 options. As the number of items increases the reliability of the answer falls.
  10. Ask for demographics last.   Surveys often start out by asking for information that many people feel uncomfortable giving. Placing such questions at the end gives respondents time to get comfortable with the idea of sharing their personal information.

Be sure to read next month’s article, “10 Tips for Administering Surveys”