Question Writing is an Art

As a survey researcher, I like to participate in surveys with enough regularity to keep current on any trends in methodology. As a web designer, an aspect of successful design is a seamlessness with the visitor’s expectations. So if the survey design realm has moved toward submit buttons on the upper right hand corner of individual pages, your idea (no matter how clever) to put a submit button on the upper left can result in a disconnect on the part of the user that will effect their behavior on the page. In fact, the survey design world has evolved quite a bit in the last few years, and it is easy to design something that reflects poorly on the quality of your research endeavor. But these design concerns are less of an issue than they have been, because most researchers are using templates.

Yet there is still value in keeping current.

And sometimes we encounter questions that lend themselves to an explanation of the importance of question writing. These questions are a gift for a field that is so difficult to describe in terms of knowledge and skills!

Here is a question I encountered today (I won’t reveal the source):

How often do you purchase potato chips when you eat out at any quick service and fast food restaurants?

2x a week or more
1x a week
1x every 2-3 weeks
1x a month
1x every 2-3 months
Less than 1x every 3 months
Never

This is a prime example of a double barreled question, and it is also an especially difficult question to answer. In my care, I rarely eat at quick service restaurants, especially sandwich places, like this one, that offer potato chips. When I do eat at them, I am tempted to order chips. About half the time I will give in to the temptation with a bag of sunchips, which I’m pretty sure are not made of potato.

In bigger firms that have more time to work through, this information would come out in the process of a cognitive interview or think aloud during the pretesting phase. Many firms, however, have staunchly resisted these important steps in the surveying process, because of their time and expense. It is important to note that the time and expense involved with trying to make usable answers out of poorly written questions can be immense.

I have spent some time thinking about alternatives to cognitive testing, because I have some close experience with places that do not use this method. I suspect that this is a good place for text analytics, because of the power of reaching people quickly and potentially cheaply (depending on your embedded TA processes). Although oftentimes we are nervous about web analytics because of their representativeness, the bar for representativeness is significantly lower in the pretesting stage than in the analysis phase.

But, no matter what pretesting model you choose, it is important to look closely at the questions that you are asking. Are you asking a single question, or would these questions be better separated out into a series?

How often do you eat at quick service sandwich restaurants?

When you eat at quick service restaurants, do you order [potato] chips?

What kind of [potato] chips do you order?

The lesson of all of this is that question writing is important, and the questions we write in surveys will determine the kind of survey responses we receive and the usability of our answers.

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