urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Questionnaire Design

by Timothy Triplett

What is it used to measure?

These days, questionnaires are used in both the private and public sector. Companies, such as Levi's Jeans, General Motors, and Victoria’s Secret rely on questionnaire data, as do the U.S. Census, the Internal Revenue Service, and the United Way. Questionnaires must not only provide relevant answers, but also a high response rate. To accomplish these objectives, design the survey and formulate the questions with the target respondents in mind; write compelling introductions to "get your foot in the door;" compose easy-to-answer, yet pertinent questions; and pretest and continually reassess the instrument's accuracy and relevance.

How does it work?

Before creating a survey, think about your target respondents, especially when considering structure and questions. Think about how receptive the respondents will be to the survey, how much they know about its subject, and how intrusive they may perceive the questions to be. Respondents' demographic characteristics, such as educational background, age, and primary language spoken, should determine your writing style.

Respondents' receptivity to questions may reflect how easily they can recall or obtain the desired information and how willing they are to share it. Think through your assumptions about the target respondents’ knowledge or experience. For example, you may assume that respondents are more familiar with service delivery procedures or acronyms than they actually are. Or you may be overly optimistic in assuming respondents can provide reliable estimates about their past experiences, such as how many hours they watched television last month. Memories are fleeting, and respondents may not recall experiences or opinions accurately.

Anticipate how receptive target respondents will be to the questions. The order in which the questions are asked should reflect their intrusiveness. Start with straightforward, factual questions that are extremely easy to answer and inoffensive, move toward more sensitive questions (such as those evaluating services), then end with requests for demographic information that will help disaggregate responses.

Research examples

"2002 National Survey of America's Families Questionnaire"

"Surveying Clients About Outcomes"

Customer Surveys for Agency Managers: What Managers Need To Know