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Survey tip 1: Use simple, unambiguous terms, which can be understood by all respondents in the same way!

The concept of a question being understood by all respondents in the same way is vitally important when carrying out standardised questionnaires. The chances of achieving this aim depend on whether the questions are simply and clearly (or rather unambiguously) formulated. But whether a question is "simply" or "unambiguously" formulated very much depends on the people you intend to ask. Certain formulations may well be simple and understandable for an economics professor, but that does not mean they will be understood by other people. Letís take the following question as an example:

"How do you think the business cycle in Germany will develop between now until the end of 2001 compared to the current situation? Very positively, positively, negatively, very negatively or will it stay the same?"

While the aforementioned economics professor should (hopefully!) be able to understand and answer this difficult question, the same should not be expected of everyone. Is the term "business cycle" familiar (and used in the correct way)? Is the scale understandable? The following formulation would be better:

"What do you think the economic situation in Germany will be like at the end of 2001? Much better than it is now, slightly better, the same, slightly worse or much worse?"

Also note another important aspect which applies to most of the "10 rules": when formulating questions you should always focus on the people who will be answering the questions or filling in the questionnaire!

Even "simple" terms can be difficult. Letís take the following popular question as an example:

"Do you think it is necessary to have a family in order to be really happy or do you think you can be just as happy living alone?"

Anyone who thinks this question is simple and unambiguous should show it to twenty people and ask them what they understand by "family" and "really happy" (you can send me the twenty different definitions by email!).

However, you shouldnít be too strict about this as it would hardly be possible to formulate a questionnaire. Instead letís try to formulate questions which are "reasonably" simple and unambiguous:

The question

"Do you view the New Year with hope or concern?"

is clearly formulated (semantically) more simply than the question

"People associate the New Year with quite different expectations. Some view the New Year with hope, others with concern. What about you? Do you view the New Year with hope or with concern?"

Or, as is often found in social science questionnaires, the question

"Do you think people should get married if they want to live together with their partner in the long term?"

This question Ė due to the number of words alone Ė is clearly simpler than the following:

The question whether people, who want to live together in the long term, should get married or whether it should also be possible for them to live together in a long term relationship without a marriage certificate, has been asked time and again over the last few years. What is your opinion? Do you think people should get married if they want to live together with their partner in the long term?"

The question

"How many children do you have? Iím referring to your own children, even those who no longer live in your home."

is perhaps not more simple, but clearer than the question

"How many children do you have?"

The same applies to the question:

"What is your net monthly income? Iím referring to the amount which remains after tax and national insurance contributions have been deducted."

This is also not as simple, but clearer than the question

"What is your net monthly income?" or even "How much do you earn in a month?"

So we can see that there is often a conflict between the need to formulate questions simply and to formulate questions unambiguously. In case of doubt you should chose the more unambiguous question, but before that you should reconsider whether you could formulate a question which, under the circumstances, is both simple and unambiguous.
Ein Arbeitsbuch
Aus der Reihe 'Studienskripten zur Soziologie' im VS Verlag
4. erw. Aufl. 2014. 203 S.
Autor: Rolf Porst
ISBN: 978-3658021177
Preis: 14,99 Euro
10 survey tips

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Last updated: 26.05.2024