Questionnaires don’t get any easier to write. Last year I slogged over several days to develop a questionnaire, and I’m sure the client must have been wondering: “What’s taking so long? How hard can it be to ask questions?”
Well the answer: it is damned easy to write questions. But to write great questions – now that’s a different story. For these you need to dig deep into the mind of the likely respondent. How do they evaluate the issues? What are their needs and motivations?
In fact that degree of empathy, I think, is the the biggest difference between a regular, low value questionnaire versus a high value exercise that delivers real understanding. Too many questionnaires are framed in the language of the client, or of the researcher. Not only is the wording starchy or full of client-speak, but the perspective is simply wrong. Many questionnaires end up like that well-worn joke: “But enough about me…tell me, what do you think about me?”
A second way to make a questionnaire better is to think about the poor analyst. Ask yourself first: is this survey simply about describing stuff? If so, then write lots of cross-tab-able questions. That’s how most of my colleagues in big companies seem to do it and frankly I feel sorry for them. Where’s the joy in running cross-tabs?
But if you want to explore the data – for example to conduct a social network analysis, or perhaps a factor analysis in order to understand the underlying themes – then you need to ask your questions in a quite specific way. Questionnaires are not about asking questions – ultimately – they are really about generating useful data. Not just data, but useful data.
The third way to add value to the exercise is to inject yourself – if possible – into the process. Now that most surveys are conducted online, they are blessed with having a single voice – which obviates the need to reduce the language of the questionnaire down to a vanilla monotone (a necessary step to remove biases when using a typical call center.)
So you can voice the questionnaire in a more conversational style. Not too conversational however. (Feedback on one questionnaire I wrote was: “Love the chatty style Duncan…but don’t get too chatty.”)
The personalisation of a questionnaire is not just a matter of tone however. While it is certainly more pleasant to fill in a friendly rather than a dry questionnaire, the real benefit is in the quality of the answers. An engaged respondent is going to deliver more nuanced, well-considered answers than is a respondent who is bored and simply wants to get out of the questionnaire via the quickest route possible – usually by marking 5,5,5,5,in all those boxes.