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You may already know which questions you want to ask in your survey, but how you write your survey questions can make the difference between a good and a bad survey. How a question is written can alter your respondents' perspective on an issue and also unintentionally force them to answer a question inaccurately.

A well-written survey question allows your respondents to answer truthfully without being swayed to one side or the other. In other words, the questions shouldn’t leave them feeling confused about which option to select.

So before you put pen to paper and start writing your questions, take a look at these five common survey mistakes that you should avoid:

Top survey mistake number 1: Questions should never be worded in a way that will sway the reader to one side of the argument. If a question includes non-neutral wording, the chances are that it's a leading question.

Bad question: How short was Napoleon?

The word “short” immediately puts images in the respondent's mind. If the question is rewritten to be neutral sounding, this can eliminate the leading bias.

Good question: How would you describe Napoleon’s height?

Leading questions can also be the cause of unnecessary additions to the question.

Bad question: Should concerned parents use infant car seats?

The term “concerned parents” leads the respondent away from the topic at hand. Instead, stay focused by only including what is needed in the question.

Good question: Do you think special car seats should be required for infant passengers?

Loaded questions are questions written in a way that forces the respondent into an answer that doesn’t accurately reflect their opinion or situation. This key survey mistake will throw off your survey respondents and is one of the leading contributors to respondents abandoning surveys.

Bad question: Where do you enjoy drinking beer?

By answering this question, the respondent is announcing that they drink beer. However, many people dislike beer or will not drink alcohol and, therefore, can’t answer the question truthfully.

Usually, loaded questions are best avoided by pretesting your survey to make sure every respondent has a way to answer honestly.

In the case of the example above, you may choose to ask a preliminary question about whether the respondent drinks beer and use skip logic to let people who don’t drink beer skip the questions that don’t apply to them.

What is a double-barrelled question? It’s one of the most common survey mistakes. And it’s when you force respondents to answer two questions at once. It’s also a great way to ruin your survey results.

Survey questions should always be written such that only one thing is being measured. If a single question has two subjects, it’s impossible to tell how the respondent is weighting the different elements involved.

Bad question: How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the pay and work benefits of your current job?

In the case of the example above, it makes sense to split the question into two parts: satisfaction with pay and satisfaction with work benefits. Otherwise, some of your respondents will be answering the question while giving more weight to pay and others will answer giving more weight to work benefits.

Good questions: How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the pay of your current job? How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the work benefits of your current job?

It’s also easy to double-barrel a question by giving more than one group for the respondent to consider.

Bad question: How useful will this textbook be for students and young professionals in the field?

Now the respondent is forced to give a single answer for both parties. Instead, split the question into two parts, with one measuring usefulness for students and one measuring usefulness for professionals.

Good questions: How useful will this textbook be for students? How useful will this textbook be for young professionals in the field?

Absolutes in questions force respondents into a corner where they can’t give useful feedback. These questions usually have the options Yes/No and include wording such as “always”, “all”, “every”, “ever”, etc.

Bad question: Do you always eat breakfast? (Yes/No)

Read literally, the example above would force almost any respondent to answer “No”. Even then, there would be some respondents who would interpret the question as asking whether they always eat a full breakfast when they have a chance.

The inflexibility of absolutes makes questions too rigid to be used in a survey. Instead, the question should have a variety of options that people will feel more comfortable choosing from.

Good question: How many days a week do you usually eat breakfast? (Every day / 5–6 days / 3–4 days / 1–2 days / I usually don’t eat breakfast)

Regardless of who’s taking your survey, use clear, concise and uncomplicated language while trying to avoid acronyms, technical terms or jargon that may confuse your respondents. And make sure you provide definitions or examples if you need to include tricky terms or concepts. By doing so, you can be certain that almost anybody can answer your questions easily and that they’ll be more inclined to complete your survey.

Bad question: Do you own a tablet PC?

Good question: Do you own a tablet PC? (e.g. iPad, Android tablet)

Bad question: What was the state of cleanliness of the room?

Good question: How clean was the room?

Generally, you should strive to write questions using language that is easily understood. Certain sample groups, however, may have a knowledge base that can make the use of more difficult terms and ideas a viable option.

Ask yourself whether your respondents have a deep understanding of certain events, terms and issues dealt with in the survey. The more you can focus on writing good questions, as opposed to explaining things in common terms, the better.

For example, if you’re surveying patients in a hospital, you’ll want to avoid using medical jargon. However, if your survey sample is made up of doctors, it makes sense to ask more specialised questions and use higher-level medical terminology.

By avoiding these five common survey-writing mistakes, your survey should run like a well-oiled machine, your data will be more accurate and your respondents will exit your survey feeling great because they’ve shared honest and accurate feedback. Triple win! So put your writing cap on and start creating those questions.

Having trouble thinking of the right thing to say? We’ve got lots of resources to help you out. Or get in touch with our on-site experts, who’ll design your survey for you.

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