Post on 12/02/2016 by Sealia Thévenau

Categories : Your online surveys

One of the most difficult aspects of creating a survey is determining the questions and their exact wording.  Even slight variations in the wording can lead to misinterpretation of meaning or confusion. This, in turn, can lead to biased or incorrect data collection, which we don’t want.

Writing questions that will not only be clear but get you the information you are looking to collect is delicate process and takes experience.  You’ll have some hits and many misses in the process of gaining this experience.  This article aims to give you a boost in this process to get you writing good questions as soon as your first questionnaire.  I will proceed with a series of questions you should ask yourself concerning your questions and explain why these are important to contemplate before ever sending out your survey.  So let’s get started…


Can your question be misunderstood? – AKA: You know what you mean, but does everyone else?

First point: Good questions are clear, for everyone, even if they are broad. 

You do not need to be ultra specific in order to be clear.    Take the following question for example:

“Have you taken a vacation on the weekend when there was bad weather and you discovered your shoes weren’t quite suited to the occasion?”

See what I mean?  That question is NOT clear, but it’s very specific: it adds variables of context, footwear and so on… but what is the question actually asking?  Having too many specifics means that the respondent is going to have to work harder to figure out what their answer is… or they’ll simply drop out of your survey.

So if too many specifics make a question unclear how can we rephrase the above question?  How about: “Have you ever taken a weekend vacation?” or “Do you take vacations on the weekend?” 

These two examples bring me to my next point: misinterpretation.

Notice that these two examples have slightly different wording, but they’re asking the same thing right? Well… no.  For example, the second question asks if you “take your vacations on the weekend” which could be interpreted to mean “I always use my weekends to go on a trip”. It could also mean “I have taken advantage of the weekend to take a vacation.” Or “I only ever take vacations over the weekend”… Insert other interpretations here. 

This is silly question topic and this problem is made much more poignant with controversial subjects or difficult topics, for example. The point is that if the respondent may be able to interpret the question in many different ways then you need to change your wording.  The best way to know if your wording isn’t quite right is to ask different people around you – friends, colleagues, nemesis if you have one – to read your question and tell you what they think it means. 

Third point: misinterpretation is one thing but are you just being downright pedantic?

Are you using terminology that is very specific? Are you using precise technical terms or “using big words” to explain something simple?  Know your audience and realize that no one likes to feel dumb.  Use common language and terms people can relate to.  Now if you’re sending your questionnaire exclusively to a group of theoretical physicists concerning black hole thermodynamics or the photoelectric effect… then… well you can use whatever terminology you feel appropriate for that situation… I’m afraid I can’t help you there.


Wht r u talkin bout?

It is also very important not to use “text speak”, profane speech, or group specific vernacular. 

If you use language or vocabulary that is specific to a particular demographic you will alienate your other respondents.  For example, if you start talking about Angry Birds… you’re going to lose some people.  It is difficult to control how many of your respondents will understand specific cultural references. For example, you could bring up topics such as M.A.S.H., Power Blades, turn-tables, 8-tracks and so on… Each of these would alienate a different group. The exception to this is if you targeted a specific age group or demographic when you published your questionnaire. 

Rude language is never !&*#!!? acceptable in a survey.  Do not drop f-bombs or include any other profanity in your questionnaire.  Ever.


Is your question actually two?

It is important not to ask two (or more) questions in one.  “Obviously!” I hear you protest. Well you’d be surprised how often I see questions like this:

“What do you think of the food and décor of our restaurant?”

Well… make up your mind. Do you want to know about the food or the décor?  They are different things entirely.  Make sure that each of your questions is in fact ONE question. 


Woah! Did we just change subjects?

You can include many different types of questions within the same questionnaire.  However, you need to make sure you make transitions clear.  Your respondent is going to be confused and possibly give wrong answers if you ask questions with completely different topics one after then other.

“Where was your last vacation?”

“Do you like Nutella?”

What? Is Nutella related to my last vacation? Are they trying to ask me if I eat Nutella when on vacation?... Add pages to your questionnaire or separate the topics with a subtitle to make it clear to the respondent that you’re moving on to something new. 


Looking forward to part two

For now I’ll leave you with these questions to ponder.  This list of questions is simply a guide to help you optimize your questionnaires by starting with clear questions. 

Even after asking yourself all these questions (and those from part 2 of this article) about your questions there will still be some trial and error.  However, after a couple of questionnaires you’ll start to get the hang of it. Keep an eye out for part two of this article which will be published in a couple of weeks! 


Sign in and try it out for yourself! 

Join us on 



New Comment