5 Questions to Ask Yourself when Writing a Survey

By: Amanda Barna


Writing a survey can be a tedious assignment. It is not as easy as just throwing some questions down on a piece of paper. Only through careful writing, editing, and rewriting can you make a good questionnaire.

To write a survey that is effective and that gets you data that you need to make key decisions, there are several questions that you need to ask yourself before you get started.

  1. What am I planning to do with the results in the end?
    You should always start with what you want to do with the data, i.e., your project goals, and then work backward to write the questions. If a question does not relate to your end-goal, then it should not be included in the survey. The goals of the project determine who you are going to survey and what questions you will ask them. If your goals are unclear, the results will probably be unclear. Some common goals include learning more about:
    • Awareness and satisfaction with current products or services
    • Employee attitudes and satisfaction
    • Customer attitudes and satisfaction
    • The potential market for a new product or service
    • Thoughts and opinions about political candidates, levies or issues
  2. Who will be surveyed?
    Surveys need to be written for the population they are going to. You wouldn’t ask the same questions to a group of lawyers as you would to the general public. If you conduct an employee satisfaction survey or an association membership survey, the audience you are going to survey is obvious. If you are trying to determine the likely success of a program or product, the target population can be less obvious. Correctly determining the target population is critical. If you do not interview the right kind of people, you will not end up with data usable to meet your goals.
  3. What’s the best way to administer the survey?
    Is the survey going to be administered on-line, over the phone, through the mail, or in person? Each mode has advantages and disadvantages. Determining how you will collect your data will allow you to write questions that are best understood in that mode. Phone surveys should be written like a friendly, scripted conversation between strangers. You will need to include additional transitional phrases that may not be necessary with other modes. Phone interviews cannot show pictures. If you need to include pictures in your survey, phone is not the way to go. If you are planning to do a web survey, you need to make sure that your target population has access to the internet. People responding to mail or on-line surveys cannot easily ask “What do you mean by that?” if they do not understand a question. In addition, if the respondent gives an answer that does not answer the question or is too broad, there is no interviewer to probe for a more usable answer. Bottom line, each question should be suitable for the mode of data collection being used.
  4. How long does that survey need to be?
    Surveys should be as short as possible while still meeting the objectives of the project. When drafting your questionnaire, you need to decide what is essential to know, what would be useful to know and what could be cut if necessary. Keep the essentials, keep the useful to a minimum and get rid of the rest. If the question is not important enough to include in your report, it should not be included in the survey.

    As a rule of thumb, phone surveys are most successful if they fall within the 10-12 minute range or shorter. On-line surveys should be even shorter, less than 10 minutes on average. Mail surveys should be kept to 4 pages or less if possible. Although it is hard to do, you must avoid the temptation to add a few more questions just because you are doing a questionnaire anyway.
  5. What is the motivation for respondents to complete the survey?
    The survey introduction offers an excellent place to provide the motivation to complete the survey. In the Introduction, be sure to say how long it will take to complete the survey and clearly state how completing the survey will benefit them. For example, it will improve the services they receive from you or help you to provide a better work environment for your employees. You also need to include information about how you will be using the responses you are given. Will the responses be anonymous, confidential, or shared with others? If you are offering an incentive for participation, mention this in the introduction. Just like with the survey, the introduction should be as short as possible. Don’t include any information that is not necessary for the respondent to know. Also, it is important to end each survey experience on a positive note. Make sure that you end each survey with a thank you for the respondent’s time and cooperation. This goes a long way in getting respondents to participate in future surveys.