Improve survey data and engagement through proper question wording

Questionnaire writing is one of the most fundamental parts of survey research. The answers and insights you get from your survey are only as good as the questions you ask. Researchers spend a great deal of time drafting a questionnaire. Countless meetings and reviews may take place on what questions to include and how to word it.

Proper question wording is also critical to the survey respondent experience and engagement. Questions need to be clear and succinct. A poorly worded question may confuse the respondent and fail to accurately capture their opinions. A respondent may misinterpret (or there may be a variety of different interpretations) a question, ultimately leading to unclear results. On the other hand, good question wording can help ensure you get the insights you seek and improve survey participation and enjoyment. Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing questions, including basic wording problems to avoid:

1 Avoid unnecessary wording

Don’t make the respondent read more than they have to. This makes the survey experience more difficult than it needs to be. Tedious surveys lead to lower data quality.

Example: Now please think about your role models. It may help to think of individuals that achieved things you admire or mentors you’ve learned from. Use the following scale, indicate which characteristics describe the role models you’ve had in life.

Consider whether scene-setting is necessary for your question. Often times it can be simplified: What characteristics describe the role models in your life?

Example: Why haven’t you tried Tony’s brand rice before?

  • I looked for them but couldn’t find them in my store
  • I had a friend/family member tell me that I should not buy that brand
  • It didn’t seem appealing to me based on what I know about the brand

Each of these answers options can be shortened:

  • I couldn’t find them in my store
  • The brand doesn’t appeal to me
  • A friend/family member advised against it

2 Avoid leading the respondent

These are phrases that encourage respondents to answer a certain way. This leads to poor data quality since you’ve biased the respondent answers. Strive instead to be neutral.

Example: Do you believe education is important for the future health of the country?

The way this question is asked, it leads to only one response. This only logical answer is to agree.

Instead you may ask:

What do you see as the most important issue facing the future health of the country?

  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • The Budget Deficit
  • Other

This forces respondents to prioritize what’s important to them and prevents a “want it all” response. Questions that have only one logical answer are usually best rephrased as a trade off among competing choices.

Example: The Toyota Camry is the best selling car in America. Would you consider buying one?

People will tend to agree with what is popular or socially acceptable. Stating that the Camry is the best selling car in America encourages the respondent to affirm the question.

Instead, use more neutral wording, and ask: Would you consider purchasing a Toyota Camry?

3 Seek to be understood

Avoid using technical jargon or “marketing speak.” Instead, use everyday language. It helps to be conversational as respondents will find plain language easy to read and understand at a glance. This will lead to a much more enjoyable survey experience.

Example: On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 means ‘completely dissatisfied’ and 5 means ‘completely satisfied’, how would you rate your hotel experience?

Plain English: How satisfied were you with your hotel experience…?

Example: At which of the following stores or websites did you actually shop for clothing for your most recent purchase?

Plain English: The last time you bought clothes, where did you buy it?

Be careful about using slang terms and vernacular that might not be understood. But do follow conversational norms with your intended audience and this will yield quicker and better quality responses.

Example: Are you against or for Proposition ABC?

Instead: Are you for or against Proposition ABC?

4 Be sensitive

Respondent will drop out of a survey if they encounter a question which asks for sensitive information. In such situations, avoid direct questioning or asking for specifics. You can also make the question optional or provide an opt out answer like “prefer not to answer.”

Example: What is your position towards the LGBTQ community?

  • I strongly support
  • I somewhat support
  • Neutral
  • I’m somewhat against
  • I’m strongly against

Respondents are likely to avoid giving socially unacceptable answers. A less extreme set of answer choices would be more suitable in this case:

  • I strongly identify with/advocate for
  • I identify with/advocate for
  • I don’t identify with/advocate for
  • Not sure

Example: What is your annual income? _______________

Asking directly for someone’s income may lead to dropout. This is a sensitive topic. Instead ask:

Which of the following categories best describes your annual income?

  • Less than $15,000
  • $15,000 to $24,999
  • $25,000 to $34,999
  • $35,000 to $49,999
  • $50,000 to $74,999
  • $75,000 to $99,999
  • $100,000 to $124,999
  • $125,000 to $149,999
  • $150,000 or more
  • I prefer not to answer

5 Stay consistent

Nothing is more confusing than seeing a rating scale formatted or written one way, then using a completely different structure for another question. Here are some areas to watch out for:

  • Rating scale consistency — make sure the positive and negative ends of the scale are aligned in the same direction throughout
  • Keep scale labels consistent where it makes sense
  • If presenting the same answer options across multiple questions; keep the row order the same
  • Keep font and styling consistent
  • Keep any visuals (e.g. brand logos) consistent throughout

Respondents will spend the most time in a survey reading your questions and answer options. It pays, then for you, the researcher to spend the most time considering how these are written. You not only want to capture accurate data, but also provide a clear and friendly survey experience for your respondents. Confusing and long-winded questions distract from getting the insights you want, and also turn the respondents off from your survey. Seek to be understood, use simple and concise language, and strive for a smooth, frustration-free survey.

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