The Art of Asking Questions: 5 Tips to Improve Question-Wording

The Art of Asking Questions: 5 Tips to Improve Question-Wording

The Art of Asking Questions: 5 Tips to Improve Question-Wording

Asking questions is an integral part of how we communicate with one another. Think about it – most conversations start with the universal question, ‘how are you?’ We may also ask, ‘how was your day?’, or ‘do you have any plans for the weekend?’ and so on. This is how we create relationships, build connections, and gain understandings of each other’s lives.

However, many factors determine the answer that the questioner receives. The response is shaped by the situation, existing relationship, perceived intent behind the question, and whether the answerer believes there’s a genuine interest in her or his response.

Let’s go back to that universal question, ‘how are you.’ Chances are the answer will be ‘good, thank you, and you?’ Why – well, that’s social niceties at play. I recently responded in this exact way when greeting my dentist, yet I was anything but good given the searing toothache I was experiencing. This is when her more pointed question ‘what brings you in today’ starts to uncover my woes.

The same communication principles are in play when we ask questions to uncover how our customers think and feel. The questions, be it in a survey, an interview, or an online community, are all part of the conversation we are having with the participant.

The questions need to be understandable, answerable and get to the heart of the subject matter. While the tone needs to communicate a genuine desire to understand the perspective of the answerer and that their views are valued.

All of this is no easy feat and why writing questions is an art (as noted in Stanley Payne’s 1951 book of the same name). Here are the five most common issues that I come across, and tips on how to avoid them:

1. Long, unruly questions

Long questions are daunting. They take more effort to read and comprehend; something people aren’t as willing to do in today’s world. Lengthy questions also take up a lot of room on a mobile device, compounding the issue. For example, rather than asking, ‘Which of the following statements do you think applies to the commercial that you’ve just viewed’, we can simply say ‘Was the commercial…’

Tip: Keep questions to 10 words or less. This can be a stretch, but it is a good goal to have in mind.

2. Being overly specific

We often have a particular view on what we are looking to understand. This may be very important to us, but the language we use may not make sense in our participants’ world. For example, asking about ‘a snacking occasion where you have prepared the food from multiple ingredients.’ People don’t think about snacks as occasions, and the request is further complicated by the multiple ingredients.

Tip: Would the question make sense to your grandparent, best friend, or niece? If not, revisit.

3. Using unnaturally formal language

A mere twenty years ago, it would have been proper and correct to use formal language when constructing your questions. While there are always exceptions, today’s language is generally less formal and more conversational. The way we write our questions should reflect this trend while being careful not to be too informal (i.e., avoid slang, unless specifically appropriate). For example, we can turn this response statement ‘Someone else has responsibility for purchasing groceries for the household’ into a fair more straightforward ‘Someone else buys the groceries’.

Tip: Use appropriate everyday language.

4. Not allowing participants to provide their opinion

The reason we are asking questions of people is to gain insight into their views, opinions, experiences, and so on. If, for example, we seek customer feedback on a particular interaction with the brand, only asking a Net Promotor Score question isn’t going to provide rich detail about that experience, only whether they are advocates, detractors, or somewhere in between. Even a simple follow up question asking why they feel this way, will help shed more light on their experience.

Tip: Review questions & response options thoroughly – will participants be able to express their opinion. If in doubt, add an optional open end at the close ‘Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?’

5. Unclear, or multiple, study objectives.

Too often, we aren’t crystal clear on what we are trying to understand in the study overall. For example, are you interested in customer feedback to determine how they view our brand, whether they understand our messaging, or gather feedback on a particular product feature? While on paper we know it doesn’t make sense to combine all of these pieces, we may try to do to so when writing the questions because well, it’s only a few more questions. This translates into poorly worded questions, incomplete response options, and/or confusing question sets.

Tip: Be absolutely clear on your study objective, and how every question addresses that objective.

At the end of the day, obtaining a true understanding of how your customer thinks and feels is all about asking the right questions, at the right time, in the right way. Using these tips above will help you on this journey.

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