Asking the Right Questions the Right Way
Keep your survey to a reasonable length.
If you want to know someone's view on a particular topic, you go
and ask them, right? Getting their answer directly is much better
than second-guessing what their response might be.
The challenge comes when you want to gauge the opinions of
several groups of people. For example, you may need to assess the
mood of your team or department in response to a new initiative
you've introduced. Or you may want to test out an idea with your
customer base before launching a new product or service.
Whether it's corporate culture issues, or customer satisfaction
research, the best source of feedback and suggestions is usually
the primary stakeholders themselves. We can try to guess what
customers want, or what motivates workers – or we can simply
ask them directly.
That's where surveys come in. Surveys give you the chance to ask
a target group of people a set of questions about a particular
subject, project, or issue. You can then use their views to tailor
your strategy, or review your approach.
However, do bear in mind that effective surveys involve much
more than writing down questions, and asking people to respond.
What, therefore, do you need to know about surveys before you
implement one? And how do you maximize the value you gain from
This article outlines the strategies and techniques that will
help your survey deliver the desired outcome.
Planning the Survey
If you simply sit down and start writing questions, you may risk
missing critical elements of the data you want to capture. Take
time to plan your approach, and decide what you want to
Consider the following when planning your survey:
- Determine your survey goals – What do
you want to learn from your respondents? The clearer you are about
what you need to know, the more focused your questions and answers
will be. Do you want satisfaction ratings, or people's opinions?
Are you measuring attitudes, or predicting future needs?
- Identify your target population – Whom
do you want to survey? Respondents could be past customers,
potential customers, job applicants, workers in a particular
geographic location, and so on. Before you define your target
audience, assess how their answers will help you achieve your
objectives. Also, make sure that you have access to your desired
respondents. Are you able to contact the right people to ask your
Be aware of the potential bias associated with your target
population. For example, if you survey only former workers, or
people who have contacted your customer service department, you're
likely to receive a higher proportion of negative answers. This is
because former staff may have left the company because they were
unhappy, and people tend to contact customer service when they have
- Decide your sample size – How many
responses are enough to give you the information and insight you
require? Larger samples usually allow you to reach more reliable
conclusions from the audience's responses. However, you don't want
to survey too many people. Ideally, you need a balance between the
number of responses, and your ability to process and analyze
- Choose your survey method – How will you
deliver the survey? The time and budget you've got available will
often determine how you carry out the research. Here are some
options, and the common advantages and disadvantages of each:
- Person to person – In one-on-one
interviews, it's easy to change or clarify your questions as
needed. However, these interviews take a lot of staff time, so you
have to decide if the investment is worth it. Some companies use
telephone interviews to reduce costs, but this can also be
- Mail – This can be cost effective, and
relatively easy to organize. This method also allows respondents to
complete the surveys at their own convenience. However, there is a
tendency for people to ignore this kind of survey, and there's no
opportunity for you to explain the questions. However, there are
ways to improve response rates, which we discuss below.
- Internet – Email and online surveys are
growing in popularity, partly because they're inexpensive to
deliver. Email surveys can be limited in the types of questions you
can ask – but you can set up surveys on websites so that
they're interactive, and you can even program them to react in real
time to the responses given. However, there are disadvantages to
Internet surveys. Respondents must have access to a computer and
the Internet. And, you need to make sure that only the target
audience has access to the survey, and that respondents answer only
once. However, there are various survey tools available –
such as Surveymonkey, PollDaddy, and Google Forms – that aim
to make the whole process easier.
Your survey method may create biases. As we said, online surveys
limit your respondents to computer users with Internet access.
One-on-one interviews can be affected by the time of day –
for example, if you're surveying office staff during work hours,
they may be pressed for time. And interviewing people in one
location may reach only one socioeconomic group, or have another
limiting factor. Consider any potential biases when choosing your
- Determine your survey length – How many
questions will you ask? The key here is to be very focused on your
goal. If you allow multiple stakeholders to contribute, you'll
quickly end up with a list of questions that's far too long. It's
important to be ruthless in challenging the value of each question,
and to avoid including the vague 'nice to knows,' or the ones that
do not contribute to your goal. Bear in mind that the survey length
may influence the quality and quantity of responses you receive.
When a survey is too long, people may get bored – and either
fail to complete it, or answer too quickly to save time. If the
survey takes more than five minutes to complete, people may not
bother doing it at all. If the survey is too short, you may not get
enough information to meet your research goals. Also, consider
asking the same question in different ways to evaluate the
reliability and integrity of the responses. KISS (Keep it Simple,
Stupid) is a good guideline when determining your survey
- Choose the types of questions – Will you
use true/false, multiple choice, ranking, or open answers? The more
customized your responses, the more work it takes to interpret the
results. Simple multiple-choice or limited-choice questions can be
scanned into a computer, and analyzed quickly. However, you may
lose some of the detail by taking this approach, so consider the
pros and cons of each option.
It's important to consider these basic planning elements, and be
clear about your objectives and basic strategy, before you start
writing the survey questions.
Developing the Questions
You can use two basic types of questions in a survey...
Access the Full Article
This resource is only
available in full within the Mind Tools Club.
Learn More and Join Today
Already a Club member?
Log in to finish