Common mistakes

Drafting a survey? Beware of these common mistakes

Last updated: 10 APR 2022

In the case of survey based research it’s not just about WHAT you want to ask. It’s also as much about HOW you formulate your questions. Otherwise you might end up with data that is false or of poor quality. Good questions are clear and they don’t raise any doubts at the time of completing the questionnaire. Bad questions may include answer suggestions or they can even make it impossible to give a truthful answer and as a result they are discouraging. What kinds of questions should you avoid?
Questions which your readers won’t understand

Incomprehensible jargon, slang or acronyms can be misunderstood by the respondents who might feel confused. Make sure you use words that are comprehensible for those who are going to fill out the questionnaire. This is a common mistake when surveys are designed by experts, who know their products very well and use jargon on every day basis. Unless your questionnaire is also targeted at an equally hermetic group, it should use universal vocabulary and include explanations or examples in the case of more complicated issues.

DON’T ASK : Do you use a PC?
ASK : Do you use a personal computer (notebook or desktop computer)?

Questions which may suggest the answer

Keep a neutral approach and avoid questions which could convey a possible answer. Use objective vocabulary. Don’t paint any possible scenarios.

DON’T ASK : Is the building, which is being constructed in the neighbourhood, too high?
ASK : What do you think of the height of the building, which is being constructed in the neighbourhood?

DON’T ASK : Should the owners muzzle their dogs out of concern for the children who visit the park?
ASK : Do you think that the dogs visiting the park should be wearing muzzles?

Questions which tackle more than one issue at a time

Some questions force respondents to give one answer for two (or possibly even more) issues. Such questions might make the frustration levels go up and discourage respondents from completing your survey. They also become incredibly hard to interpret.

DON’T ASK : How satisfied are you with the teachers and resources used in our language school?
ASK : Question 1 - How satisfied are you with the teachers in our language school?; Question 2 - How satisfied are you with the resources used in our language school?

This question tackles two different issues and there will surely be respondents satisfied with the teachers but critical towards the resources. Make it possible for them to provide the right feedback by formulating the questions correctly.

Questions which sound unconditional

Those are the questions which allow no exceptions. They tend to require yes/no answers and often include expressions such as: always, never, all, none. They are very restrictive and as a consequence they don’t have much in common with reality.

DON’T ASK : Do you always get up before 8?
ASK : How many times a week do you get up before 8? (include diverse range of possible answers)

It’s really hard to imagine, anyone could absolutely always get up before 8.

Questions which suggest actions irrelevant for some of the respondents

Be cautious, because such questions may discourage your respondents from completing the survey at all. When forced to give a false answer, some will rather resign from providing it or conclude they're not in the target group for your questionnaire.

DON’T ASK: Who do you most like to meet up with for coffee? - this question implies that respondents drink coffee and do it in company. What about those who don’t drink coffee at all, or tend to do it alone? It’s impossible for them to give a correct answer to this type of question.
ASK: Include a preliminary question - e.g. Do you drink coffee?, then add logic and branching to ask more specific questions only to a relevant group of respondents.

Before you launch your research, it’s also a good idea to run a test survey on a group of people, whose profile is similar to your target respondents and who haven’t been involved in the process of survey creation. This will help you make sure your questions are good and not confusing.

author: Joanna H

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