Eliminating Ambiguity in Survey Questions

Jun 27, 2019

It may seem obvious that a key component to a good survey is asking the right questions, but it is important to remember that asking those questions in the right way is equally impactful. A proper survey question is clear, answerable, easy, and unbiased. Today we’re going to focus on the first of those attributes – clear – and provide some tips for ensuring your survey questions are clear enough for your respondents to fully understand.

To start, use the vocabulary that your respondents would use. Respondents will not be able to answer a question that they don’t understand. Keep your vocabulary as simple as possible to cater to all ages, education levels, and backgrounds. Avoid using complicated words and words that could mean more than one thing. Stay away from technical terms, acronyms, or industry jargon that won’t resonate. If you are unsure whether a respondent will understand, simplify the verbiage.

Clearly define whom the question is referencing. It should be clear to respondents whether the question pertains to them alone, their spouse and them, their entire household, etc. Replace the word “you” with clearly defined phrases such as “you personally,” “you, yourself,” or “you or someone else in your home”. This ensures all respondents are interpreting the question in the same manner. As an example, imagine a mother of three reads the survey question, “Which toothpaste brand do you use?” and is unsure how to respond because she purchases multiple brands for her household. Specifying, “Which toothpaste brand do you personally use?” would prevent this issue.

Use precise language to avoid ambiguity. Your question wording should leave nothing up for interpretation. Here is an example of a question that at first glance may seem clear: “Who in your household takes care of the dog?” However, when you think through this question, it’s a bit more complicated. There are many aspects involved in “taking care of” the dog, including feeding, walking, bathing, etc. Specify precisely which action you are inquiring about: “Who in your household feeds your dog?” It may also be helpful to get a second pair of eyes involved. Have a colleague take your survey as a respondent would, noting any questions that are confusing or unclear.

Ensure your question stem and answer choices are aligned. In other words, make sure your response options match up with the question you are asking. Let’s say you ask the following question: “How interested are you in learning to ski?” It would be incorrect to offer your respondent the choices, Very Likely, Somewhat Likely, Somewhat Unlikely, and Very Unlikely. Your response options should directly correlate with the question wording: Very Interested, Somewhat Interested, etc. When the two are aligned, questions are clearer and easier for respondents to answer.

Avoid double-barreled questions, which make it impossible for respondents to answer accurately. A double-barreled question is one that touches on two or more distinct topics yet allows for only one response. Break any such questions out so that you are only asking one question at a time. For example, split the question “Would you recommend GutCheck to your clients for qualitative or quantitative research?” into two questions:

  • “Would you recommend GutCheck to your clients for qualitative research?” and
  • “Would you recommend GutCheck to your clients for quantitative research?”  

If you are concerned respondents might skim over an important word or phrase, don’t be afraid to use formatting! This is also useful for differentiating similar questions. For example,

  • “Would you recommend GutCheck to your clients for qualitativeresearch?” followed by
  • “Would you recommend GutCheck to your clients for quantitative research?”

The above tips will lead you to clear survey questions that your respondents will understand and be able to answer. Clear survey questions will enhance the respondent experience and ultimately improve the quality of your data. Take the time during questionnaire development to write clear questions in order to get the answers you need, so that you can confidently make decisions and act as a result of your research.

To see some additional techniques that can be used to keep online respondents engaged, take a look at this quick eGuide.

Written By

Jacqueline Cox

Jacqueline Cox

Senior Research Strategist

Learn how GutCheck’s Persona Connector solution leverages a combination of survey and big data to bring actionability to persona development.

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