Online Survey Pitfalls: Ambiguous Survey Question Writing

Friday, we discussed how to write a survey without complex questions. To continue with the serious, we'll look at how to spot and correct ambiguous questions when writing satisfaction questionnaires.

Let's use the following examples to show different ways a survey question can be ambiguous.

Sample Survey Question: How many car repairs did you do last year?
Sample Market Research Survey Question

Are you asking the survey respondent if they personally did care repairs or took it to a mechanic? You're lacking context surrounding the question. Some people may answer like this survey respondent, but you won't know how many they did and how many a mechanic did. Other people will just provide a number, and you wont know how they interpreted the question.

Sample Consumer Survey Question: In the past month, how often did you shop in department stores?
Sample Consumer Survey Question

What are you going to do with this information? What is occasionally to one person is going to be different to the next survey respondent and what is regularly to another respondent could be often to another. Instead, replace this ordinal scale with one with more measurable answers: Never, 1-2 times, 3-5 times, 6-10 times, More than 10 times, Don't know.

Sample Demographic Survey Question: What is your martial status?
Sample Demographic Survey Question

This is a pretty standard demographic survey question. However, if left open ended, you may not get the response you want. This is a real example survey question response from a telephone survey. Be careful with words that could have multiple meanings. In this example, the survey respondent interpreted marital status as marital satisfaction. Depending on the purpose of the survey and the question flow, the survey respondent could honestly believe you're asking about their satisfaction.

When writing satisfaction survey questions, writing employee survey questionnaires, or any other type of feedback survey, keep these four solutions to ambiguous survey questions in mind:
• Avoid words or phrases with multiple meanings
• Specify the context of the question
• Watch for similar spellings or pronunciations of key words
• Be direct about what you're asking
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