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Survey Design Basics

Write and Organize the Questions

When you write and organize the questions for your survey, ask yourself the following:

  • Which type(s) of questions are you using?
    • Closed: The responses are structures or partially structured.  You use this when you have a clear idea what exactly information you want to collect. E.g.: multiple choice (easier to handle), allocation, ranking (more difficult to handle) questions.
    • Open-Ended: No structure in the response.  You use this when want to collect rich information, but there is more effort in analyzing data.
  • Are you clear enough?
    • Provide all the information necessary (e.g. a timeline, definitions), but don’t include irrelevant information.
    • Provide examples or definitions if needed to clarify.
    • Use “simple” words and use as few words as possible.
    • Avoid abbreviations, unless defined otherwise.
    • Avoid using double-negatives.
  • How is your audience?
    • Use terminology and tone appropriate for the audience.
    • Ask questions that can be answered by your audience.
  • When creating Multiple Choice Questions:
    • Ensure you have all the possible choices available, but don’t allow choice overlap.
    • Keep answers consistent (such as same units).
    • If necessary, include “Not Applicable”, “other”, or “undecided”. Distinguish “undecided” from “neutral”.
  • Likert Questions (Scale Questions):
    • Let high numbers = “positive” or “high” response (agree, often, likely etc.) and low = “negative” or “low” response (disagree, seldom, unlikely, etc.)
    • Have the same number and strength of positive and negative choices, for example:Scale with three negative, one neutral, and three positive responses.
    • Frequency: be specific (e.g. once per week) rather than say “often”, “seldom”, “never”, etc. because these can be defined differently by different people.
      • People tend to like being “average”, so be careful with your ranges of choices and “extreme” values.
  • KISS (Keep It Short and Simple):
    • Survey length is related to response rate: longer surveys = less responses
    • Ask yourself if every question is relevant for your purpose, leave out unrelated questions and try address all your goals in a single survey
    • Length can affect data quality: longer surveys = less time spent per question
    • Try to limit the time of completion to 15 minutes or less
    • However, it is useful to include multiple questions to ask the same thing in a different way, even if it will increase its length. This increases data reliability.
    • Factors to consider

      • More questions are appropriate for online surveys and surveys with easy questions, closed questions, and an audience with a personal interest in the research (they have a stake in the outcome, or there is a relationship between the surveyor and the respondents)

      • Fewer questions are appropriate for interviews and surveys with hard questions, open-ended questions, and a more general audience.

  • Habits to avoid:
    • Biased or leading questions.
    • Framing questions “negatively”. If you have to use negative words, it may be helpful to emphasize it by capitalizing, italicizing, bolding, etc. (e.g., NOT).
    • Ambiguous questions. E.g., A yes/no “Do you like our library services?” question can be better stated as several scale questions such as “Please rate each of the following library services on a scale from 1 to 5.”
    • “Double-barreled” questions (asking two or more questions in one). E.g., “How satisfied are you with the library GIS and statistical consulting services?” would be better as two separate questions.