Top 5 Tips for an Effective Questionnaire

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Written by: Bryn Thomas, Technical Editor at The Farnsworth Group.

As a technical editor in market research, I edit and review my fair share of questionnaires. We, as a firm, also spend a lot of time thinking about how to make questionnaires better. If your company is exploring how to conduct market research, you’re probably thinking about this, too.  

Fortunately, there are simple ways to improve questionnaire quality that we have learned from 30 years of conducting research in the construction, home improvement and lawn & garden industries. Keep in mind, there are many nuances involved in questionnaire writing that are unique to each industry, as well as questions that vary between DIYers and professionals.

Creating Effective Surveys

Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Focus on one key question—or at least try to.

A focused questionnaire yields more meaningful results. Before writing a questionnaire, jot down the central question you are hoping to answer with your research. That question might be, “How do consumers perceive our brand of paint?”  

Make a list of the information you need in order to answer this key question. For our example question above, this information might include respondent demographics, paint brand awareness and qualities that respondents associate with our paint brand.  

Then, for each item in this list, brainstorm questions that will help you gather the information. For brand awareness, you might have respondents list paint brands they can recall or pick brands they recognize in a list.

As you review your questions, ask yourself whether each one helps you answer your central question. If a question is not related to the fundamental issue, throw it out.

2. Keep questionnaire time to 15 minutes or less.

If you’ve ever been subjected to a long questionnaire, you probably reached a point where you lost focus and clicked through blindly just to get it over with. These answers likely didn’t reflect your thoughts on a given issue and didn’t provide meaningful data to the researchers. To avoid respondent fatigue and gather quality data, limit your questionnaire to 15 minutes or less.

It is far better to have people’s full attention for a short questionnaire than their wavering attention for a long one. Think quality over quantity when it comes to data. You can always conduct a follow-up survey.

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3. Write question stems that are 20 words long at most.

Respondents’ time and attention are limited. If confronted by a wordy question, people are not likely to read and understand the full question. You can often shorten a question by moving parts of it to answer choices, as in the example below:

First draft:

Do you typically select a brand first and then shop at a retailer that carries that brand, or do you select a retailer first, then buy a brand they carry?

a. Select brand first

b. Select retailer first


Do you typically…?

a. Select a brand first, then shop at a retailer carrying that brand

b. Select a retailer first, then purchase a brand they carry

The revised version of the question is clearer and takes less time to read. It will be easier to understand, with the bonus of cutting down on questionnaire time.

Additionally, writing questions in a conversational tone makes them shorter and easier to understand. One way to write conversationally is to read your questions aloud and ask yourself: if you were asking someone that question in a conversation, would you say it that way?

4. Avoid using large grids.

Again, this comes down to people’s limited time and attention. Most people don’t have the patience to read every single element in a large grid and provide an authentic response in each row.

Consider this: If you ask respondents to assign each element in a 20-attribute list to one of five brands, you are actually asking them 100 separate questions. Almost no one has time for that.

For the sake of your data (and the sake of respondents), pare down the number of attributes in grids. Maybe there are three attributes and three brands that most pertain to your central question, allowing for a nine-question grid. Using this nine-question grid will yield clearer and more accurate results than the 100-question grid.

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5. Clarify your units.

This is simple but important, especially for open-ended questions. If you ask, “How long have you been a general contractor?” some people may answer, “Since I was 32,” “Not long,” or “Since February 1989,” rather than quantifying it in years. It’s better to ask, “How many years have you been a general contractor?” instead. This way, everyone will specify a number and refer to the same unit, and the data will be much easier to analyze.

Or Utilize a Partner

Another way to improve your questionnaire is to partner with a market research firm. Unless you’re a professional researcher with industry expertise and respondent knowledge, it can be daunting to write an effective questionnaire that gives your company critical insights.

If you need help creating an effective questionnaire, and analyzing all the data afterward, The Farnsworth Group can help. Contact us today to schedule a consultation on your research needs.