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Questionnaire design

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Questionnaires play a central role in the data collection process. A well-designed questionnaire efficiently collects the required data with a minimum number of errors. It facilitates the coding and capture of data and it leads to an overall reduction in the cost and time associated with data collection and processing. The biggest challenge in developing a questionnaire is to translate the objectives of the survey into a well-conceptualized and methodologically sound study.

Before you can design the questionnaire, you must plan the survey as a whole, including the objectives, data needs and analysis. Once the questionnaire is designed, it must be tested before you can proceed with the data collection.

There is a lot to consider when developing a questionnaire. The following is a list of some key points to think about:

  • Is the introduction informative? Does it stimulate respondent interest?
  • Are the words simple, direct and familiar to all respondents?
  • Do the questions read well? Does the overall questionnaire flow well?
  • Are the questions clear and as specific as possible?
  • Does the questionnaire begin with easy and interesting questions?
  • Is there a specific time reference?
  • Are any of the questions double-barreled?
  • Are any questions leading or loaded?
  • Should the questions be open- or close-ended? If the questions are close-ended are the response categories mutually exclusive and exhaustive?
  • Are the questions applicable to all respondents?

Introduction and conclusion of the questionnaire

The introduction of the questionnaire is very important because it outlines the pertinent information about the survey. The introduction should:
  • provide the title or subject of the survey
  • identify the sponsor
  • explain the purpose of the survey
  • request the respondent’s co-operation
  • inform the respondent about confidentiality issues, the status of the survey (voluntary or mandatory) and any existing data-sharing agreements with other organizations.

Respondents frequently question the value of the gathered information to themselves and to others. Therefore, be sure to explain why it is important to complete the questionnaire, how the information will be used, and how respondents can access the results. Ensuring that respondents understand the value of their information is vital in undertaking a survey.

The following is an example of a good introduction to a questionnaire.

Assessing Student Needs

School name_______________________________

Please take some time (approximately 50 to 75 minutes) to complete this questionnaire. Your responses will provide important information that will help your school in planning better ways to support your health and well-being.


What this survey is for?

This survey provides you with an opportunity to share your thoughts on what is needed to keep you and your school safe and healthy.

You do not have to complete this survey if you do not wish to do so. However, everyone’s views are important and the more participation we receive, the better the results will be. Please understand that this questionnaire is completely confidential.

  1. Do not write your name on the questionnaire.
  2. Seal your questionnaire in the envelope provided.

Once the envelope is sealed, it will only be opened by the team entering your responses to the questions into the computer system. Your envelope will be placed with many others and there will be no way to identify individual respondents. The results of all the questionnaires will be added together and reported back to the school.

The opening questions of any survey should establish the respondents’ confidence in their ability to answer the remaining questions. If necessary, the opening questions should help determine whether the respondent is a member of the survey population.

A good questionnaire ends with a comments section that allows the respondent to record any other issues not covered by the questionnaire. This is one way of avoiding any frustration on the part of the respondent, as well as allowing them to express any thoughts, questions or concerns they might have. Lastly, there should be a message at the end thanking the respondents for their time and patience in completing the questionnaire.

Wording of questions

One of the most important factors in any survey is the design of the actual questionnaire. The questions and instructions should be easy to understand and respond to. The way a question is worded is very important as the same question worded in a different manner may achieve completely different results. Consider the following.

Abbreviations and acronyms

Always spell out the complete form of abbreviations and acronyms.

Example: Do you know if the pop figures are available online?

Better wording: Did you know that the population figures from the 2006 Census of Population are available on the Statistics Canada website at

Example: Have you ever participated in our LFS survey?

Better wording: Have you ever participated in a Labour Force Survey for Statistics Canada?

Complex words and terminology

Avoid specialized terminology and complicated words.

Example: Do you know who is leading the talks surrounding the impending amalgamation of surrounding constituencies into the "new metro" areas?

Better wording: Do you know who is leading the talks in each of the provinces regarding the amalgamation of cities, towns, villages and rural areas into "new metro" areas?

Example: Have you ever received a pneumococcus vaccination?

Better wording: Have you ever received a flu vaccination?

Frame of reference

Give all the details concerning the question’s frame of reference.

Example: What is your income?

Does the word "your" refer to the respondent’s personal income, family income or household income? Does the word "income" refer to salary and wages only, or does it include tips or income from other sources? Because there is no specific time period mentioned, does this question refer to last week’s income, last month’s or last year’s income?

This question is too vague. It should be reworded so that all of the specific details concerning the frame of reference are given.

Better wording: What was your household’s total income, from all sources before taxes and deductions, for last year?

Specific questions

A question’s frame of reference is not the only specific detail required. In order to get a uniform response from the entire sample, the question sometimes needs to state the type of response needed.

Example: Respondents are shown a bottle of orange drink and are asked, "How much orange juice do you think this bottle contains?"

Some of the results from this question are outlined below:

  • One orange and a little water and sugar
  • 25% orange and 75% carbonated water
  • Juice of one-half dozen oranges
  • Three ounces of orange juice
  • Full strength
  • A quarter cup of orange juice
  • None
  • Not much
  • Don’t know
  • A pint
  • Most of it
  • About a glass and a half

Better wording: This bottle holds 250 millilitres (mL) of orange drink. How many millilitres of this drink would you say are orange juice?

Double-barreled questions


Do you plan to leave your car at home and take the bus to work during the coming year?

Does your company provide training for new employees and retraining for existing staff?

Each of the above examples asks two questions rather than one:

In the first example, the question asks respondents if they plan to leave their cars at home, and whether or not they are taking the bus for the next year.

The second example asks respondents if their company provides training for new employees as well as providing retraining for existing employees.

In some instances, the answer to each half of the question is the same. However, sometimes there could be two very separate answers, which would make interpreting this question difficult.

The best solution could be to split such questions in two.

Loaded questions

The following examples demonstrate how a loaded question can impact the respondent’s results.

Example 1:

In your opinion, should Sunday shopping be allowed in Ontario; that is, should stores that want to stay open on Sunday be allowed to stay open on Sundays if they want to?

  • Results:
    • 73% In favour of Sunday shopping
    • 25% Opposed to Sunday shopping
    • 2% No opinion

Example 2:

In your opinion, should a Sunday pause day be adopted in Ontario; that is, should the government make Sunday the one uniform day a week when most people do not have to work?

  • Results:
    • 50% Opposed to a Sunday pause day
    • 44% In favour of a Sunday pause day
    • 6% No opinion

Source: Toronto Area Survey, 1991.

The wording of the first question asks whether the respondents were in favour of Sunday shopping, while the second question was worded to ask respondents whether they were in favour of not working on Sundays. As a result, there was a significant change in the data.

A possible explanation for the difference in the results could be that some respondents did not quite understand the implications of the question. Some people may be opposed to working on Sundays, but are still in favour of shopping. However, if no one works on Sundays, then stores cannot stay open for shoppers!

Open or closed questions

Generally there are two types of questions: open and closed. Open questions give respondents an opportunity to answer the question in their own words. Closed questions give respondents a choice of answers and the respondent is supposed to select one.

Open question

What is the most important issue facing today’s youth?

Closed question

Which of these is the most important problem facing today’s youth?

  • Unemployment
  • National unity
  • Environment
  • Youth violence
  • Rising tuition fees
  • Drugs in schools
  • Need for more computers in schools
  • Career counseling

There are advantages and disadvantages to using one type of question versus another. The open question allows the respondent to interpret the question and answer it anyway he or she chooses. The respondent writes the answer or the interviewer records verbatim what the respondent says in answer to the question.

The closed question restricts the respondent to select an answer from the specified response options. For the respondent, a closed question is easier and faster to answer and for the researcher, closed questions are easier and less expensive to code and analyse. Also, closed questions provide consistency, an element that is not necessarily going to occur with an open question.

Questionnaire testing

This is a fundamental step in developing a questionnaire. Testing helps discover poor wording or ordering of questions; identify errors in the questionnaire layout and instructions; determine problems caused by the respondent’s inability or unwillingness to answer the questions; suggest additional response categories that can be pre-coded on the questionnaire; and provide a preliminary indication of the length of the interview and any refusal problems. Testing can include the complete questionnaire or only a particular portion of it. The complete questionnaire will at some point in time have to be fully tested.