There are no midi-chlorians when it comes to questionnaire design.
Sigh. I’m sad to start the post like that but it’s true. There are no Jedi mind tricks that will make people generate better questionnaire data. There are no sacred texts on the market research version Ahch-To containing that one single piece of advice that will allow someone who’s never written a questionnaire before to create an effective questionnaire that generates actionable outcomes. The only Force at our disposal is careful training as a Padawan and years of experience. Fortunately, as a questionnaire Jedi Knight myself, having years of experience does mean that I can share a few tidbits I’ve learned along the way, tidbits not necessarily found in an academic textbook. So here goes.
Questionnaires aren’t about grammatically perfect writing: After perhaps two decades of primary, secondary, undergraduate, and graduate school, many of us have learned an abundance of grammar and writing skills that we’ve been told are essential for clear communication. Don’t end sentences in a preposition. Don’t use sentence fragments. Don’t start sentences with ‘and.’ However, as questionnaire writers, we have a very specific goal: To write questions and answers that are understandable to as many people as possible. And sometimes, that means joining the Dark Side and ignoring the rules we’ve struggled to follow for years. With that in mind, when there isn’t a good alternative, it is indeed okay to write questions that end in prepositions!
- Which country do you live in? [Or better, ask “Where do you live?”]
- Which of these have you heard of?
- Which of these have you seen before?
Questionnaires aren’t about professional and formal writing: Of course we want research participants to recognize that the questionnaire they’re completing is important and should be taken seriously. However, formal language can be a deterrent to questionnaire completion, particularly for people whose reading skills don’t match the writing skills of the researcher. Besides, participating in a research questionnaire ought to feel like entertainment, not like a 30-minute life skills exam. Banish that language to a life locked in carbonite and instead, choose a casual language style that people will feel comfortable with. (Oh, see what I did with that preposition!) You need to avoid slang, idioms, and inside jokes that are meaningless without context, but you can certainly inject a bit of casual but relevant humour along the way.
- Are you ready to chat about carpet cleaners and vacuums? It might be a boring topic but we all need a clean home!
Questionnaires aren’t about comprehensive questions: Sometimes, in our attempts to be clear and focused, we end up writing questions that are long and complicated, subsequently making it difficult for people to deconstruct and comprehend the intention behind asking the question in the first place and causing the resulting data to be riddled with quality issues. The alternative is to break sentences apart. Short sentences make comprehension accessible to everyone. People who are reading in a second language can understand short sentences. People who have different reading skills can understand short sentences. Be part of the resistance when it comes to long questions and long answers. If our goal is comprehension, short sentences are always preferred.
- In the last month, how many large bottles of detergent did you buy? (A large bottle is 1 litre or 1 kilogram or more. Please include liquid and powder detergent.)
Questionnaires aren’t about category comprehensiveness: When you start thinking all the questions that could be answered, it’s easy to stretch a 5-minute questionnaire into a 35-minute questionnaire. Use the force to avoid this inclination. Short questionnaires retain the interest and attention of participants and therefore generate much better data. Cut every question you know you won’t act on. Cut every question that won’t generate an actionable outcome. Cut all the ‘nice to know’ and ‘I wonder whether’ questions. If the questionnaire still requires more than 15 minutes to complete, then you need to move to step two – figure out whether it can be cut it into pieces. That could mean giving twice as many people half as many questions, or spreading the questionnaire out over multiple occasions.
Quality questionnaire writing is a rare skill: Whether it’s designing marketing strategies that double the business in one year, accurately translating mission statements into six languages, or writing effective questionnaires, everyone is a Jedi at something. Jedi Knights in the research industry have written entire textbooks on how to create a good questionnaire. They’ve witnessed thousands of fatal errors across many different categories and industries, and know many of the common and obscure mistakes. Even better, Jedi Masters have learned a plethora of techniques to counteract hundreds of cognitive biases that prevent people from answering truthfully. They’ve acquired a unique skill of ensuring questionnaires will meet specific needs and generate the best possible data quality. If your research outcomes are intended to feed into major decisions impacting the health of your business, it is essential that you seek out the advice of Jedi Master questionnaire writers.
And with these tips firmly entrenched, may the survey force be with you!
Annie Pettit, PhD, FMRIA, is a consultant for Sklar Wilton & Associates. She helps marketers build research tools that facilitate clear and direct answers to key questions and problems.
Sklar Wilton & Associates has worked for more than 30 years with some of Canada’s most iconic brands to help them solve tough business challenges to unlock growth and build stronger brands. SW&A was recognized as a Great Workplace for Women in 2018, and the Best Workplace in Canada for Small Companies in 2017 by the Great Place To Work® Institute. Recognized as the number one Employee Recommended Workplace among small private employers by the Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell in 2017, SW&A achieved ERW certification again in 2018.
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