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How to write survey questions that will get you the exact answers you are looking for

Mathew Maniyamkott

15 July 2019

7 min read

How to write survey questions? It’s harder than it sounds. However, good survey questions are crucial to conducting meaningful surveys because the right questions lead to the right data.

At SurveySparrow, we currently help 100,000+ customers from 149 countries manage their surveys. Based on our experience, we’ve put together a list of the top 15 tips to teach you how to write survey questions.

  1. Use simple language
  2. Avoid jargon
  3. Give a ‘Not applicable’ option
  4. Ask neutral questions
  5. Balance your answer choices
  6. Ask specific questions
  7. Remove unnecessary questions
  8. Avoid double-barrelled questions
  9. Allow optional questions
  10. Use different question formats
  11. Stay away from loaded questions
  12. Concentrate on the order of questions
  13. Use long questions wisely
  14. Use consistent rating scales
  15. Auto-populate form fields

How to write survey questions

Tip #1: Use simple language

There are a million other things your customers could be doing, but they chose to respond to your survey. So stay away from complicated words, fancy words, or words that can have multiple meanings. The best questions stick to simple language that they can understand on the first read.

Here’s an example of a complicated question: Considering the gaming laptop you currently have, which of the following features do you like the most? Order the features from the lowest (the one you like least) to the highest (the one you like most).  

Think of the simplest way something could be asked and draft the question.

#Tip 2: Avoid jargon

We have put ‘avoid jargon’ as one of the tips because many companies are guilty of doing it while sending survey questions. The worst part about jargon is that we may not even realize we are doing it. So unless you’re surveying a specialized audience, steer clear of jargon, slang, and abbreviations. To help you achieve this, you can test the survey with a group of people who aren’t part of your target audience.

Here’s an example of an employee feedback question with jargon: As a team leader, how would you synergize with teams across the board to achieve long-term KPIs?

Tip #3: Give a ‘Not applicable’ option

Imagine one of the questions is a multiple-choice saying, “How was your experience with Product XYZ?”. But the respondent has not used Product XYZ ever. So they would be searching for an option that says, “Not applicable” or “Never used it.”

But when they search for a few seconds and can’t find that option, what do you think they will do? They will close the survey. Giving people a choice to answer in the negative will reduce bias in your data.

Tip #4: Ask neutral questions

How exactly do businesses try to influence customers into giving the answers that they want? One way is with the question framing. For example, here are two questions that ask for the same thing. But the subtle difference in wording will lead to a different answer for each.

  1. We have been giving you the best service possible. How would you rate us on a scale of 1 to 10?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate our service?

Can you spot the difference? Which question is more neutral? How would you respond to each question?

Tip #5: Balance your answer choices

Your answer choices should enable people to give honest feedback. That seems obvious, but what exactly are we talking about?

So, for example, if you were to ask your customers how satisfied they are with your service, these are poor answer choices:

  • Extremely satisfied
  • Satisfied
  • Very satisfied

If a customer is dissatisfied, there is no way they can tell you that with these answers. Let’s fix that.

  • Extremely satisfied
  • Satisfied
  • Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
  • Dissatisfied
  • Extremely dissatisfied

Now the customer can honestly express their level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. That allows you to follow up with them and find out what went wrong. Then you can solve their issues and possibly save customers from churning.

Tip #6: Ask specific questions

People’s understanding of things is based on a bunch of stuff that includes their life experiences, perspectives, etc. So when you frame a question, make sure it is as specific as possible. Specific questions also give you objective answers. Here’s an example:

Bad: Does technology improve the quality of life for older people?

Good: In what ways does technology improve the quality of life for older people?

Another pro tip: ask, don’t assume. When you think that your respondent already knows something, you might frame your questions in a way that confuses the respondent.

Do not mind if asking a highly specific question increases the length of it, but it is all right if the respondents are better suited to answer it.

Tip #7: Remove unnecessary questions

There is always the temptation to ask one more question, dig up one more detail – even though it might not be necessary to the objective of the survey. So when you are drafting questions for a survey, ask yourself a few:

  • What is the survey objective?
  • Does the question add value to the study?
  • Is the question relevant to this survey campaign?
  • Would the absence of this question derail the effectiveness of the survey?

Tip #8: Avoid double-barreled questions

A double-barreled question is a question that brings more than one issue to your attention. It is problematic to ask because there is no way a respondent can have a similar response to two different topics. Also, it confuses the responder to no end. Here’s an example:

How easy was it to navigate our website to find product X and product Y?

Suppose the respondent had a smooth navigation experience with product X but not with product Y. How do you expect them to respond? Simple. Draft two separate questions:

How easy was it to navigate our website to find product X?

How easy was it to navigate our website to find product Y?

Tip #9: Allow optional questions

It is a given that some people might come across questions that they do not want to answer. So give them the leeway to skip the question.

Also, if you are confused between making a question mandatory and keeping them optional, always choose the latter. Your hesitation is a hint that the question might not necessarily be required.

Tip #10: Use different question formats

Multiple question formats are a tried-and-true method of improving the survey experience. It reduces respondent fatigue and helps you get deeper and more objective insights. Here are some popular question formats:

  • Yes/No questions
  • Multiple-choice
  • Image choice
  • Open-ended
  • Matrix tables
  • Visual analog scale
  • Net Promoter Score
  • Likert scale
  • Rating scale

Related: How to use question types in SurveySparrow

Tip #11: Stay away from loaded questions

A loaded question has at least one unjustified, sometimes controversial, assumption that the respondent might disagree with. Let us give you a (non-controversial) survey question example.

Where do you usually watch football?

This question is by an agency doing marketing for a sports bar. What’s so loaded about this question, you ask? The respondent might not be a fan of football at all! If you include such a question, you should also give them the option to respond with, “I don’t watch football.” You get the drift.

Forcing respondents to choose an answer that might not necessarily reflect their opinion is a terrible way to conduct a survey.

Tip #12: Concentrate on the order of questions

The question order helps prepare your respondent to think about the topic at hand. So, here is how you should order your questions – make it look like a funnel. Start with general questions. Then, gradually move on to more specific questions.

However, people also want to appear consistent in their responses. So their previous answers can influence follow-up answers. Here’s an example:

  1. What are your three favorite flavors of ice cream?
  2. Would you be interested in trying out our Fig and Cream Cheese flavor?

Suppose Fig and Cream Cheese isn’t one of the respondent’s favorite flavors. They will respond with a lower level of interest to the second question. So, in this case, apply display logic.

Tip #13: Use long questions wisely

Well, we have been vocal about asking short questions. So we are still sticking with that principle, but do not hesitate if you think a long question makes more sense.

Try to keep it to just 2-3 long questions though. Also, space them out across the survey to lessen monotony.

Tip #14: Use consistent rating scales

If you are using a 1 to 10 scale, ensure that you follow it throughout the survey. It helps with standardized measurement and answer scoring. On the other hand, following up your 1 to 10 scale with a 1 to 6 scale can confuse even seasoned survey users. As mentioned in the previous tip, people prefer consistency in their answers.

Also, reversing the numbers- using a 10 to 1 scale – is not advisable either. That’s because, from an early age, our brain is trained to perceive numbers in ascending order – to the extent that viewing in reverse can make us slightly uncomfortable.

Stick to a method of using the scale in such a way that you are consistent always, even in the newer surveys that you would be sending.

Tip #15: Auto-populate form fields

Have you ever had to fill in forms that asked for your name, address, email ID, phone number, designation, and more details? Why are they so irritating? Because one, they are hard to remember. And two, people, especially your customers or employees, will assume that the business already has their information. So why are they wasting their time?

Auto-populate demographic data like the ones above so that respondents don’t have to answer repetitive questions. You will undoubtedly increase your response rate as well as drastically reduce the drop-off rate.

The effectiveness of your survey is in the questions you ask.

Conclusion

We hope these tips taught you how to write survey questions. Pro tip: Before sending the survey to your respondents, test it out with a different set of people. It will help you weed out unclear questions, wrong answer choices, typos, and bad grammar. You will also get feedback that will guide you on how to write the survey questions.

Online survey software like SurveySparrow can make the job a whole easier. They have hundreds of survey templates with expertly crafted questions for everything from donut order forms to remote employee engagement surveys. By the way, do you fancy yourself a Star Wars fan?

Mathew Maniyamkott

Guest Blogger at SurveySparrow

Regular contributor to various magazines. Passionate about entrepreneurship, startups, marketing, and productivity.

Everything about delighting customers.
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