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Writing your questionnaire

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A guide to writing short and to the point questionnaires to assess outcomes. Plus tips on drafting questionnaires to get the best response.

A survey is a process of systematically collecting information from people. This can be done using questionnaires and interviews. This page is about developing a questionnaire. 

Introducing your questionnaire

In the introduction to your questionnaire, make clear:

  • the purpose of your questionnaire and how it is helping you to survey a particular area
  • details of the organisation (possibly a funder) sponsoring it
  • who is carrying out the survey (possibly external consultants)
  • how long it will take to complete the questionnaire.

Consent

Seek informed consent in the introduction to the questionnaire. Respondents should have the information they need to make an informed choice about participating. You should also mention:

  • that taking part in the survey is voluntary
  • how the information will be used – emphasise that the information respondents provide will be treated confidentially, and that you will collate and report on their answers anonymously
  • whether they will be required to provide any further information
  • what benefits, discomfort or risks there may be – for example, will they be asked to provide sensitive information?

Timing

Tell your respondents the closing date for completing the questionnaire and about incentives that you are offering, such as a prize draw.

You may also wish to provide a contact for respondents who have a query.

Data Protection

The Data Protection Act 1998 requires you to make it clear in the introduction who is carrying out the survey and that you will handle the data confidentially.

For advice on data protection contact the Information Commissioner's Office or call 01625 545745.

Instructions

Provide instructions at the beginning of the questionnaire, and specific instructions for each question.

For example, instructions may be simply:

'Please tick as many as apply'

Or more complex, as in:

'Please tell us about how you've been feeling over the last week by ticking the statements that most accurately reflect how you are at the moment'.

For online questionnaires, you may wish to explain if respondents can begin the survey and return to it later.

You can customise the 'next' buttons so they are user-friendly to your target group.

For online questionnaires, you will have the option to make any question compulsory, which will prevent respondents moving on before they have answered. You may need to use  compulsory questions to filter and guide participants through the questionnaire.

It may be tempting to use compulsory questions more widely. But there is also an argument that this is contrary to a principle of voluntary participation.

Compulsory questions cannot be enforced on a paper based questionnaire.

Questions

When you are designing your questions, you should be guided by three main criteria. Questions should be:

  1. easy to understand and answer, encouraging a response
  2. relevant to the agreed survey aims and objectives
  3. valid.

You will need to pick from two main types of question:

  • Open questions – used for descriptive answers, allowing the respondent more freedom to express their views.
  • Closed questions – used to provide quantitative information, usually requiring a single answer from a respondent.

It is often helpful to use a combination of open and closed questions.

1. Easy to understand and answer

To encourage a response ask questions that are:

  • simple
  • self-explanatory
  • visually appealing.

Avoid questions that:

  • are lengthy
  • are leading
  • ask two or more questions at the same time
  • are ambiguous or can be misinterpreted
  • use jargon or technical language.

2. Relevant

It may be tempting to use the questionnaire as an opportunity to collect other information not relevant to your immediate objective. This can make the questionnaire longer and less appealing to the participants.

You will get a better response to questionnaires that are short and to the point.

So take each of your output and outcome indicators in turn and think about how best to express them as questions. For example, if a project is working with unemployed young people, an outcome may be:

'Young people are more work ready'.

You may have the following indicators:

  • level of motivation to find work
  • level of confidence in seeking work.

You could ask:

  • how keen are you to find a job at the moment? (Motivation)
  • how confident do you feel about applying for work? (Confidence)

However, you may get more objective evidence of both motivation and confidence with the following question:

  • what steps are you taking to find a job?

You may then ask follow up questions on CVs, job applications and interviews.

3. Valid

If you are designing your own questionnaire, you may not be able to test if your questions are valid scientifically, but it is worth reviewing questions to check if they are likely to measure what you intend to measure, or give only peripheral information.

For example, be aware that questions about attitudes or feelings are unlikely to give you information about behaviour.

Asking 'How many pieces of fruit have you eaten in the last week?' will provide better information about healthy eating habits, than 'How important is fruit in your diet?'

Open questions

Open questions collect descriptive data. They allow people greater freedom to respond to your questions. A question such as: 'What difference has our support made to you?' gives people the opportunity to provide greater detail about what they value about your services, or the difference you have made to their lives, than a closed question.

Used sparingly in self-report questionnaires, open questions can be most helpful to find out about people's experiences, perceptions, views and feelings. This is particularly the case when you want to explore a topic in more depth.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
  • Allow respondents to answer freely
  • May produce detailed responses
  • Don't lead respondents to a suggested response
  • Require respondents to think about their answers
  • Can provide insight into respondents' true feelings and views
  • Can produce information on unexpected outcomes
  • May produce unclear responses
  • Require more effort from respondents resulting in unanswered questions
  • Produce a large amount of data for analysis
  • Make it hard to categorise and analyse the responses

You should recognise the amount of time required to analyse responses to open questions. If you do use open questions, avoid the temptation to select a few quotes from the qualitative information, and to leave the rest of the information unanalysed. This would lose the full value of the exercise.

Closed questions

Closed questions collect quantitative data. They ask the respondent to choose between two or more possible responses, often by ticking a box or circling a response. There are different response options.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
  • Simple and quick to answer
  • Tend to get a higher response rate
  • Can help respondents to recall relevant information
  • Can convey areas of interest to the respondent
  • Can be easier to quantify and analyse the responses
  • May result in respondents ticking boxes without thinking about their answers
  • May influence how the respondents interpret the question through the answer options
  • May not give respondents the choices that reflect their real experiences, views and feelings
  • Do not show whether respondents have understood the question or not
  • Do not allow respondents to explain responses or raise new issues

Two options only

This is where there is a choice between two opposing options, such as Yes/No.

Multiple choice questions

These should cover all potential options. Adding an 'other' option with a text box to explain, will allow for options that you don't know about. This avoids a long list of options. Items on the list should be mutually exclusive. Make it clear if the respondent is asked to choose one or many options. Try to avoid giving the impression that there is a 'right' answer.

A 'prefer not to say' option is also valuable for respondents who wish to exercise their privacy.

Ranked

Respondents rank options in order of importance. In online surveys you can use the option to randomise the list, so that it is presented in a different order to each respondent. This will counteract a tendency for people to choose options at the top of the list.

Scaled

Scaled questions are a type of closed question which allow you to gather information in a structured way. There are several types of scales which allow measurement against a predetermined rating.

They are often used to assess attitudes and satisfaction levels.

Scales can be presented in different ways:

  • number scales – for example, rating from 1 to 5
  • symbols or pictures – for example, smiley faces
  • physical objects – for example, moving counters on a board
  • statements for users to agree or disagree with.

The most common scales require a response to a number of statements. There may be a simple choice between agreeing or disagreeing with the statement.

Another option is the Likert-type scale (a balanced five or seven point scale with a neutral middle point) which is one of the most popular methods for measuring attitudes. There is a range of possible responses as shown below. Statements may be worded in a positive or negative manner.

A scoring scheme is usually associated with the response. For example:

  • strongly agree = 1
  • agree = 2
  • neither agree nor disagree = 3
  • disagree = 4
  • strongly disagree = 5.

You can use the same scale and rating to compare across time.

Bear the following in mind when using scales:

  • Avoid using too many different scale types in the same questionnaire.
  • Make sure the scale you are using works for each item you are asking people to rate.
  • Express scale rating consistently from left to right, for example, from 1 to 5 or from positive to negative throughout the questionnaire.
  • In most cases, use a scale of between four and five points (maximum ten). A detailed and long scale may be more sensitive than you really need and will require more time for analysis. Often, when findings from longer scales are reported, detailed scale points are collapsed anyway.
  • You may use a central neutral point, but use an even number of scale points if you want to avoid respondents picking the middle or neutral option. Compelling the respondent to take any one side may provide invalid data if they really are neutral. You could test for the effect of your choice when you pilot test the questionnaire.
  • Explain each point on a numerical scale as this will help users to understand exactly what you mean and will give you better quality data. It will also be easier to analyse and present.
  • Allow a 'don't know' or 'not applicable' option to avoid a non-response where these apply. On the other hand, this may give respondents an option to avoid answering the questions.
  • In most cases, opt for a balanced scale, with an equal number of positive and negative statements.
  • If you do choose an unbalanced scale (for example, poor, average, good, very good, excellent), be aware that this may bias the responses.
  • Avoid using words such as 'frequently' or 'rarely'. Instead, explain what you mean by using options such as 'at least once a week,' or 'less than once a year'.
  • Avoid using too many scaled questions as people will get tired of them.
Page last edited Dec 16, 2016

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