The Power of Survey Design: A User's Guide for Managing Surveys, Interpreting Results, and Influencing Respondents

By Giuseppe Iarossi | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
How Easy It Is to Ask the Wrong Question

The goal is to have
differences in answers
reflect differences in where
people stand on the issues,
rather than differences on
their interpretations of the
questions
.

—Floyd Fowler,
Improving Survey Questionnaires:
Design and Evaluation

Improving question design is one of the easiest, most cost-effective steps that can be taken to improve the quality of survey data” (Fowler 1995, vii), yet it is frequently one of the most disregarded. While many people focus a lot of attention on sampling where the discussion of errors often deals with few percentage points, “experiments suggest that the potential range of errors involved in sensitive or vague opinion questions may be twenty or thirty percentage points” (Warwick and Lininger 1975, 126).

Although there is no formal theory on the wording of a question, a general principle exists to substantially improve its design. That is, two basic rules make a good question: relevance and accuracy.

Relevance

Relevance is achieved when the questionnaire designer is intimately familiar with the questions, knows exactly the questions’ objectives, and the type of information needed. To enhance accuracy, the wording, style, type, and sequence of questions must motivate the respondent and aid recall. “Cooperation will be highest […] when the questionnaire is interesting and when it avoids items difficult to answer, time-consuming, [or] embarrassing” (Warwick and Lininger 1975,127). A question is relevant if the information generated is appropriate for the purpose of the study. The objective of the question defines the information that is needed and models the words to be used. Sometimes this task is easy, for example, when asking the respondent’s age. Other seemingly simple tasks, such as estimating the respondent’s level of income is trickier. Hence, the questionnaire designer must force the analysts to be very specific about what they want to measure and why. “Until researchers decide specifically what their goals are it is impossible to write an ideal question” (Fowler 1995, 11).

Accuracy

A question is accurate if it collects the information sought in a reliable and valid manner. It serves no purpose to ask the respondent about

-27-

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