With the tools available today it can seem so simple to just bang out a survey and look for great results. However, designing a great survey actually takes a bit more thoughtful consideration. Factors such as survey mode, length, types of questions, and providing specific instructions can all play a role in your result gathering. Even your survey wording can make a difference.
As Harvard’s Program on Survey Research puts it, “the ideal question accomplishes three goals”:
- It measures the underlying concept it is intended to tap.
- It doesn’t measure other concepts.
- It means the same thing to all respondents.
The ideal survey question, then, can hinge on your word choice. And writing a good survey question is not always easy. There are many factors to consider with survey question wording. This article examines the key ones and offers general tips to accomplish all you hope to with your survey wording.
Why is Word Choice Important in Survey Design?
Word choice is one way of demonstrating to your respondents that you know them, which helps in raising response rates. People are much more likely to take the time to complete the survey if they understand what is being asked and can even envision its relevance to them. Knowing who you are writing for will inform your word choice to be appropriate to that group of people. This improves your data quality and helps you gather the insights you need to move on to your next step.
Considering word choice also helps you account for diversity in your survey population. America today “is a cultural hodgepodge that comes with numerous languages thrown into the mix.” English may not be every respondent’s first language. You definitely don’t want to give someone a reason to skip a survey because you use words that are too complicated or loaded.
Accessibility is another factor influenced by word choice. Avoid language that might cause a respondent to feel excluded. Be aware that gender inferences can be distracting and create barriers. Instead, focus on survey question phrasings that demonstrate respect.
Settling on the Best Survey Wording
There are several strategies that can help you design a survey with the language necessary to accomplish your goal. Here, we’ll go over some key ones.
Using technical phrases could confuse the survey respondent. Typically you want to choose survey wording that makes your questions clear to anyone taking that survey. You may think that an industry term or a professionally-known acronym is common knowledge. But, you could be wrong. Then, your respondents are lost in trying just to comprehend what the question is asking.
Let’s say you’re asking employees about the company’s values. If you ask, “How well does your supervisor uphold the company’s values?” you might get a different answer than if you asked, “How well does your supervisor uphold the company’s values of integrity and respect?” After all, in the first version of the question you are assuming your employee knows which company values you care about.
Even a small wording change can impact the answers provided. The Pew Research Center offered this example from one of its own 2003 surveys:
“When people were asked whether they would ‘favor or oppose taking military action in Iraq to end Saddam Hussein’s rule,’ 68% said they favored military action while 25% said they opposed military action. However, when asked whether they would ‘favor or oppose taking military action in Iraq to end Saddam Hussein’s rule even if it meant that U.S. forces might suffer thousands of casualties,’ responses were dramatically different; only 43% said they favored military action, while 48% said they opposed it. The introduction of U.S. casualties altered the context of the question and influenced whether people favored or opposed military action in Iraq.”
If you ask, “Is the weather good where you live?” you could get entirely different answers from someone who lives in Alaska and someone who lives in Hawaii. Their very ideas of what counts as good weather likely varies. It’s not that we expect you to be surveying about the weather. Still, for the sake of the example, a better question would be, “How many sunny days would you expect in a typical seven day period in July?”
Wordsmithing a survey in one university setting saw students basically flip-flopping their view on preferred learning environments although the people writing the questions had thought they were asking the same thing in two successive years. Take the time to check with people outside the survey making process to make sure your questions are being interpreted how you intend for them to be. If they aren’t, reword them to provide more context.
Remove leading survey wording.
Survey question wording should aim to avoid engaging the respondents’ emotions. A political pollster for instance could subtly influence results with the word choice used. Is it Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act? Is it identified as a Democratic or Republican plan? Keeping the language neutral makes the question more likely to garner an opinion based on policy preferences.
Rewrite complex sentences.
Long-winded questions can lose the reader. If you have to put in several commas or semicolons and you’re still writing, rethink the question. Too many clauses confuse. Also avoid questions that try to measure two or more things at once. Asking “Do you think we should add overtime and extend vacation leave?” would leave someone who only wants the company to do one of those things stuck for an answer.
Building a better survey is an ongoing effort. Since it is seldom a good idea to change your survey once it goes live, you need to put the thought in upfront to set up a reliable survey tool. Paying attention to survey wording can help you get the valuable data you seek.