In questionnaire design clarity trumps brevity

When designing survey questions two considerations that should be uppermost in your mind are making them as clear and as short as possible. Questions need clarity so respondents can answer them in a consistent and meaningful way. Brevity should also be our goal as respondents want us to get to the point quickly. Nobody likes waffle. The growing use of mobile devices with smaller screens also increases the pressure for shorter questions that work better in this environment.

Unfortunately these aims can conflict. Brevity can lead to loss of clarity meaning that respondents are unsure how the question should be answered which, in turn, leads to meaningless data.

For example, if we wanted to collect respondent incomes we wouldn’t ask the following question:

“How much do you earn?”

This question is short but can be interpreted in different ways. Are we referring only to income earned through employment or should we also include income from other sources such as investments and benefits? Do we mean how much do you earn in a week, or a month, or a year? Do we want to know income before or after tax? Although longer the following question clarifies what we want to know from the respondent:

“What is your personal annual income before tax and national insurance contributions? Please include income from all sources including benefits and any investments you may have.”

So, when it comes to survey questions, clarity trumps brevity. We should aim for questions to be as short as possible but never at the expense of clarity.

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