Survey Design and Development: Understanding How Respondents Answer Questions

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The Role of a Researcher is to ensure that their survey questionnaire is understandable and respondents interpret the questions the way in which the Researcher intended. If this is done, the Respondents can answer accurately and truthfully, ensuring a good survey outcome.

In a questionnaire, the respondent does not have the benefit of asking someone for clarification. All they have to go on is the following information:

  • The Question Text – Words and Formation of the Sentence That Asks the Question of the Respondent
  • The Answer Set – The Range of Offered Answers for a Closed Question
  • The Context – Prior Questions, Instructions, Guidance Within the Questionnaire


Language can be ambiguous. Good survey design is highly dependent upon how well you develop your questions. The meaning of a word can change based on context or situation. The Researcher needs to structure their survey questionnaire in a sequence that is most understandable and plausible to the Respondent. This will ensure that questions are clearly understood and have the best chance of a truthful and accurate response.

General Guidelines for Developing Questions for Your Survey:

  1. Link the survey question to your research objectives. Does this question result in information that I require?
  2. Ask short questions.  Don’t add words or use long descriptive sentences. Use direct and unambiguous language.
  3. Avoid emotionally loaded words in your questions. Don’t use ‘leading’ words.
  4. Put your survey question in context. Questions should flow in a natural progression to reduce misinterpretation.

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