Questionnaire Design

I spent today in a 1-day
course on Questionnaire Design organized by the Newcastle University Staff Development Unit, and run by Dr. Pamela Campanelli, a Survey Methods
consultant and UK Chartered Statistician. While I won’t recreate her slides
here, as that would be long, irrelevant and possibly infringe some copyrights,
I wanted to present some of the most interesting comments she had to make on the design and analysis of questionnaires and the responses returned.

          I signed up to this course as my PhD project includes, as one of its
(smaller) objectives, the comparison of the perceived level of collaboration
between the various research groups within the Centre I belong to both before
and after my PhD project is made available. Part of that project is to provide
an application accessible to all researchers that will
automatically use the output of certain research groups to inform the research
of other groups. (Yes, I am being deliberately vague here.)
In summary, the ability to provide my target audience with a simple, clear
questionnaire that will additionally produce responses that can be
statistically analyzed in a useful manner is important. As I have no previous
experience writing a questionnaire, a crash-course seemed like a good idea.
Forgive any errors in the points that follow: I am sure they are all due to my
lack of comprehension rather than to the quality of the training course!

          Of most relevance to me Pam mentioned that, when designing
a questionnaire that will be given at multiple time points (i.e. before and
after my work is available to the researchers), to ensure that the
changes in the responses are not due to questionnaire design, make sure that you use an identical
questionnaire every time you provide it

          The most important thing I learnt from the day’s training
is this: always think very carefully
about what you want to ask, and ensure that every question you ask has a
relevant objective and is written with an eye for balancing brevity and clarity
(with clarity being the more important of the two). For instance, in English
“you” may be plural or singular, and which is intended should be made clear.
Equally, words like “doctor” have many meanings: your GP, your specialist, a
PhD. Some may even check “yes” to a question asking if they have seen their
doctor if they have been to the surgery/office and seen the nurse, or even
if they have chatted with their doctor on a chance meeting at the grocery

          Pam mentioned a resource that has been useful to her in the
past, called the CASS Question Bank (
This presents – for free – the information in the
data archive. Not only might a question you wish to use already be written,
but in some cases you can see how often such a question was answered (and
perhaps also the frequencies of each possible answer). It should be noted,
however, that just because a question or questionnaire has been published doesn’t
mean it is perfect. Also, there is no “ideal response rate” for questionnaires that
can be applied across the board. Instead, the rate will naturally differ
between country and even academic discipline (or other grouping). Further, the
people who actually respond to questionnaires have different traits than those
who don’t respond (when under their own recognizance).

          Incentives were also discussed, as I had toyed with the
idea of encouraging people to fill out my questionnaire by having a prize draw
for respondents for chocolate. Interestingly, Pam mentioned that prize draws
can be the worst of the incentive choices available. One study (sorry, I didn’t
catch the reference) examined promised a guaranteed prize of great value as
opposed to giving a much smaller prize before
the respondent filled out the form. The control response rate (no incentives)
was 50%. Where the respondents were guaranteed $50 if they sent back the form,
the response rate rose to 57%. However, when $5 was included in the initial
posting with the questionnaire, the response rate rose to 67%! Whether it was
the respondent’s belief in reciprocity or their feelings of guilt, it seems
that providing the carrot at the same time as the stick was useful. On a
smaller scale, including a tea bag (as was done by a PhD student) proved popular as well.

          Memory is often overestimated. Reports vary about how large
working memory is, but I’ve both 7 +/- 2 items and 5 +/-
2 items were mentioned. As Pam suggested, imagine a scenario where you are at a restaurant and
the waiter is telling you the specials. Most people find it difficult to keep
more than 5 or 6 specials in their head: after that, they start forgetting the
earlier items. This holds just as true for self-completion questionnaires (which
I’m interested in), and questionnaires in general. Therefore, the more clauses
in a question, or the more radio buttons in a range of possible responses, the
less likely that the responder will answer with their “correct” answer. In a
similar vein, you should try not to force respondents to do mathematics in
their head (“How often per day, on average, do you visit the coffee lounge at work?”).
The more mathematics you make them do, the less likely their answer will be the
one they intended. Instead, a couple of simpler questions from which the designer can calculate the value is better.

          She also says that the most common problem she encounters
is trying to answer too many questions with a single item, with her example being “Would you like
to be rich and famous?”: this sentence is alright for those who want either
both or neither, but is not appropriate for those who want one or the other.

          What is most interesting are the social aspects of
questionnaire design. If you have a range of 5 possible answers for a question
(very positive, generally positive, neutral, generally negative, very
negative), you need to decide whether you want to force your respondents to
take a side. To do this, you remove the
“neutral” option, forcing the respondents to get off the fence. You should also be
sparing in your use of “don’t know” as an option, as many people will use that
in preference to thinking about the question. Also, in many cases it is simply
not appropriate: for instance, “don’t know” is not really
applicable to the question “How happy are you with your new TV?”. Further, vague,
subjective quantifiers should be avoided wherever possible. Words like “often”,
“sometimes” and “rarely” mean different things to different people. Instead,
measuring frequencies with words like “everyday” and “about once a week” are
better, though they may not be suitable if the respondent’s behavior is not
regular. Questions using these words must be written clearly so that
respondents can make a decision easily. Finally, numeric scales should at a
minimum have the midpoint and the two extremes named with appropriate adjectives.
If, for instance, you have the range 0-10 and have not marked 5 as the
midpoint, some people may mistake the scale for a unipolar (any number over 0
is positive) rather than a bipolar one (any number over 5 is positive). The course covered many more topics than I've mentioned here. Included below were the references she recommended for further reading.

References Suggested (the
starred reference was the one she mentioned the most)

et al. (2000), The Psychology of Survey Response.

F.J. Jr. (1995), Improving Survey Questions: Design and Evaluation, : Sage.

Dillman, D. (2007), Mail and Internet Surveys: The Tailored Design Method,
2nd Edition, :

          Fowler, F. J. Jr. (2002), Survey Research Methods. 3rd
Edition, :

          Czala, Ronald and Blair, J (2005), Designing Surveys – a
guide to decisions and procedures.
: Pine Forge

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