How to Write Surveys: 25 Best Practices
In our fall newsletter we purposely glossed over the “standard” best practices in writing surveys that one typically reads about in text books or learns in research methods classes. We wanted to give you a deep-dive into our own five last steps in writing a questionnaire that focused on advanced topics like randomization, programming logic, other-specify boxes, and so on.
But those textbook best practices are essential as well, especially for those who are new to writing surveys or for those who don’t write them all the time. So, to supplement all the advanced stuff, here we provide a handy, simple, and comprehensive list of best practices that includes the basics typically laid out in research textbooks:
- Use simple and familiar words.
- Use simple syntax.
- Avoid words with ambiguous meanings.
- Use words that are specific and concrete.
- Avoid words that are general and abstract.
- Make response options exhaustive and mutually exclusive.
- Avoid leading or loaded questions that push respondents toward an answer.
- Avoid use of other-specify boxes if possible.
- Randomize answer options if randomizing makes sense.
- Do not randomize answer options that disrupt a logical order.
- Ask about one thing at a time, avoiding double-barreled questions.
- Avoid questions with single or double negations.
- Early questions should be easy and pleasant to answer.
- Early questions should address the survey topic to engage the respondent.
- Questions on the same topic should be grouped together.
- Questions on the same topic should proceed from general to specific.
- Questions on sensitive topics should come at the end.
- Put demographic questions at the end if possible.
- Use filter questions and skip logic to avoid asking questions that do not apply.
- Assess every question for whether “don’t know” should be an option.
- Avoid offering a “not sure” option unless respondents would truly not know.
- Make survey tasks easy to avoid respondent satisficing.
- Ask one or two open-ended questions to assess data quality.
- Avoid asking more than one or two open-ended questions.
- Pretest your questions before going to field.
Within our own trove of textbooks we are particularly indebted to one in compiling this list: The Handbook of Survey Research (edited by Marsden & Wright), which has an excellent chapter on Questionnaire Design (by Krosnick & Presser). It offered an ideal summary of survey-writing wisdom garnered from hundreds of other methodology textbooks, both old and new.