Questionnaire design

It all starts with planning.

Also referred to as data collection instrument, the questionnaire is either filled out personally by the respondent or administered and completed by an interviewer.

The questionnaire may contain any of three types of questions:

(1) Multiple choice, in which there are several alternatives from which to choose

(2) Dichotomous, having only two alternatives available (with “don’t know” or “no opinion” sometimes present as a third choice), and

(3) Open-ended, where the respondent is free to formulate his or her own answer and expand on the subject of the question.

In general, multiple choice and dichotomous questions can be difficult to formulate, but data entry and analysis are relatively easily accomplished. The reverse tends to be true for open-ended questions, where a respondent may state or write several paragraphs in response to even a very short question. Because they give the respondent an opportunity to more fully express his feelings or describe his behaviors, open-ended questions are especially useful in exploratory research.

Proper wording of each question is important, but often difficult to achieve. A number of problems can arise, including the following: (1) the vocabulary level may be inappropriate for the type of person being surveyed; (2) the respondent may assume a frame of reference other than the one the researcher intended; (3) the question may contain “leading” words or phrases that unduly influence the response; and (4) the respondent may hesitate to answer a question that involves a sensitive topic. Examples of each situation follow:

Inappropriate vocabulary level

Poor wording “Have you patronized a commercial source of cinematic entertainment within the past month?”

Problem Vocabulary level will be too high for many respondents.

Better wording “Have you gone to a movie within the past month?”

Confusing frame of reference

Poor wording “Are you in better shape than you were a year ago?”

Problem To what does “shape” refer—physical, financial, emotional?

Better wording (if the desired frame of reference is physical) “Are you in better physical condition than you were a year ago?”

“Leading” words/phrases

Poor wording “To help maintain the quality of our schools, hospitals, and public services, do you agree that taxes should be increased next year?”

Problems “Schools, hospitals, and public services” has an emotional impact. Also, “do you agree” suggests that you should agree.

Better wording “Do you support an increase in taxes next year?”

Sensitive topic

Poor wording “How much money did you make last year?”

Problem This question requests detailed, personal information that respondents are hesitant to provide. The question is also very blunt.

Better wording “Which of the following categories best describes your income last year?”

[   ] under $20,000                    [  ]  $60,000-579,999

[   ] $20,000-539,999                [  ]  $80,000-$99,999

[   ] $40,000-559,999                [  ]  $100,000 or more

The above represents only a few of the pitfalls that can be encountered when designing a questionnaire. In general, it’s a good idea to pretest the questionnaire by personally administering it to a small number of persons who are similar to the eventual sample members.

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