How to write questions for a survey

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How to write questions for a survey

This 'How to' focuses on developing questions for your survey. It has pictures in it taken from an online survey but you can make these same questions in a printed document for a paper survey. Before you read this 'How to' it’s a good idea to read How to create a paper-based survey or How to create an online survey.

Purpose of survey

Because the purpose of the survey is so important to how you write your questions we are repeating this section from the 'How to' on paper and online surveys.

Write down the reason you want to do a survey, that is, what it is you want to know (eg, ‘is our service meeting people’s needs?). Now write down what questions you need to ask in order to answer that first, most important question. These questions should break the main question down into parts like this:

What we want to know: is our service meeting people’s needs?

Breaking it down:

  • Are clients satisfied with the way we conduct assessments?
  • Does the way we do case coordination, support and referral work for them?
  • Do they think we are helping them achieve the outcomes they want?
  • Are there services clients want that we aren’t providing?

Make sure the subsequent decisions about who you survey and how your survey is structured relate closely to these basic ideas.

Work out what questions you want to ask

What you want to know is your survey purpose and the questions you need to ask are your survey objectives.

Survey purpose: to learn whether our service is meeting clients’ needs.

Survey objectives: to learn about client satisfaction and collect feedback on the following:

  1. Assessment processes
  2. Case coordination
  3. Client outcomes
  4. Gaps in service provision

Make a list of the questions you need to ask to find out what you want to know. Use your objectives as categories to organise these questions. Your example might now look something like this:

An example

Survey purpose: to learn whether our service is meeting clients’ needs.

Survey objectives: to learn about client satisfaction and collect feedback on the following:

  1. Assessment processes
    1. Do clients understand why they’re being asked the assessment questions?
    2. How did the clients feel about the assessment process?
  2. Case coordination
    1. Are clients satisfied with the quality and responsiveness of the case coordination model?
    2. Do clients have any feedback for service improvement?
  3. Client outcomes
    1. Are clients making progress towards, or achieving their goals?
  4. Gaps in service provision
  5. What needs do clients report are not being addressed?

We hope this example is close to something you know well – that its close to how many community service organisations work. But what if you want to run a survey to find out new information about a topic that you don’t know much about?

In that situation you need to do some preliminary research so that you can design your survey. The best way to do that is to do a short survey of a group of relevant people using some open-ended questions (for more on these see section 4 below). The answers you get to this preliminary survey will tell you what you should explore in your survey proper.

There are a couple of things you need to avoid when you are thinking up your questions.

Don’t ask questions that people can’t answer accurately

To avoid this mistake do the following:

  • Ask screening questions to make sure your survey is being done by the right people
  • Use words people understand

  • Keep your survey short

  • Give people the chance to choose ‘don’t know’ or ‘neutral’ or ‘not applicable’.
  • Don’t ask questions people don’t want to answer because they are embarrassing

Structure your questions

Sort your questions into this order:

Screening questions


These are the questions at the beginning of the survey which help screen out people who aren’t eligible to take part in the survey.

For example, a survey about satisfaction with a service might first ask ‘are you a client of this service?’

Easy to answer questions


Start with questions that don’t take much effort so that people become more invested in completing the survey.

These should be closed questions and they should be simple to answer. (Eg how long have you used this service?)

Difficult to answer questions


These are the questions that require people to write answers, remember things, analyse things or provide personal information. They are further down the questionnaire.

These questions are usually open-ended, or ask for specific information.

Sensitive questions

If you have questions that are personal or might make someone uncomfortable put them towards the end of your survey.

Obviously asking about criminal history, trauma or drug usage is sensitive. But asking questions about people’s age, income or educational qualifications can also be considered very sensitive as can asking about exercise or dieting habits.

By putting these questions at the end of the survey it is hoped that the respondent will feel comfortable and engaged enough to answer them.

Work out how you are going to ask your questions.

There are two different ways you can ask questions in a survey − using closed or open-ended questions.

Closed questions

Closed questions give people a set of answers to choose from. Use closed questions when you:

  • already have a good general knowledge of your survey topic
  • so you can provide the right range of options for people to choose from
  • want to use the answers statistically, that is, combine and analyse them numerically

  • want to look at particular groups among your survey respondents to see how they have answered questions, eg, look at the answers to questions about access from everyone who ticked yes to ‘live in a regional area’. Use these when you want just one answer to a question.

Multiple choice questions

Use these when you want just one answer to a question.

Drop down questions

Use these when you want one answer to a question but you have lots of options and need to save space.

Ranking questions

Use these when you want to measure the value people give something.

Matrix of ranking questions

Use these when you want to measure the value of a series of items against the same scale.

Open-ended questions

These allow people to give you their own thoughts and opinions. Use open-ended questions when you:

  • want to collect rich, qualitative information
  • want to gain insights into all the opinions on a topic

  • want to capture insights or expertise that you might not be aware of 

  • are surveying a small group of people

  • are doing a preliminary survey to help you work out what you want to ask in your final survey 

  • want to give people an outlet for thoughts which couldn’t be expressed through closed questions

Text box

Use a text box when you want to give people the chance to give a short answer to your question or the answer you are asking for is a number. They are limited to about 65 characters.

Comment box

Use this when you want to collect more information. A comment box allows people to write a lot.

Some final advice on writing your survey questions

  • Use clear, straightforward language (no jargon!)
  • Don’t ask double-barreled questions (two questions in one)

  • Don’t ask leading questions (questions that assume a particular answer)

  • Don’t waste time and space asking questions you already know the answers to