Design and Layout

The design of the questionnaire will determine whether the data collected will be valid and reliable. Although the researcher’s input is invaluable, ultimately the responsibility for approving the questionnaire lies with the manager. Therefore, s/he must be able to not only evaluate the questionnaire itself, but also the specific wording of questions.

There are three steps to questionnaire design:

  1. What information is needed to answer the research question(s): this requires a thorough understanding of the research objectives and data gathering method chosen as well as of the respondents’ reaction to the research and willingness to provide the information needed;
  2. How are the questions to be asked, that is to say the types of questions that will be used and the actual wording; and
  3. In which order will the questions be asked: this includes the visual layout and physical characteristics of the questionnaire (see layout and sequencing), and the pretesting of the instrument to ensure that all steps are properly carried out.

Layout and Sequencing

Probably the most challenging questionnaires to design are for self-administered surveys, since their appearance is critical in motivating respondents. If the font is too small, the instructions confusing, the look unprofessional or cluttered, you can be sure that it will have an immediate impact on both the overall response rate and non-response error.

Even if there is a covering letter to accompany the survey, it is a good idea to reiterate the key points about the importance of the survey, due date and where to return it at the top of the questionnaire, in case it gets separated from the covering letter. It is critical that the first several questions engage the respondent. They should also be relevant to the study itself so that the respondent quickly understands what the survey is about and becomes engaged in is objectives. These questions should be straightforward with relatively few categories of response. Also, respondents should not be asked to agree or disagree with a position at the outset, but rather eased into the survey by asking them what they think is important or what they prefer.

Because of these considerations, it is not a good idea to put demographic questions at the beginning of the questionnaire. Since they are easy to answer and often seen as simple "housekeeping" items, they are much better at the end when respondents are getting tired. The same holds true for any questions considered a bit more sensitive. If placed too early, they can lead the respondent to abandon and it is better that there only be one or two questions at the end that suffer from non-response bias rather than that the response rate as a whole be reduced.

Questions themselves should be grouped in sections, and these sections should have a logical sequence. You want to avoid making the respondent "jump around" mentally, and if necessary, may even want to help him/her "shift gears" by introducing a new section. For instance, "Now we will shift slightly to ask about…" or "We would like to get your opinion on some related areas" can help the respondent travel through the questionnaire or interview.

One other important aspect to watch out for is "position bias". This bias can occur in lists, where the first items are treated differently (often seen as more important) from the last items. It is therefore a good idea to have several versions of the questionnaire, where this is an option, and change the order of the lists in question.

Instructions should clearly stand out. Too often, it is the questions themselves that are bolded or italicized, rather than the instructions. Remember that respondents will always read the questions, but unless their attention is really drawn to the instructions, they are likely to skip these. This could lead to response error, particularly if you are asking them to skip certain questions based on their response.

Be sure to also consider coding of the questionnaire to save time and confusion during the data entry stage. Whatever rationale you chose for coding, it should be discreet (i.e. not distract the respondent in a self-administered questionnaire) and consistent throughout.

Pamela Narins, the Market Research Manager for SPSS, has written some excellent "guidelines for creating better questionnaires" that you should definitely check out!


No matter how experienced you are in developing questionnaires or how "routine" the survey might be considered, it is always important to pretest your instrument before it is printed and fielded. Start by reading it aloud – the flow of words should sound conversational/read smoothly and communicate clearly. Instructions should not leave any doubt about what the respondent is supposed to do. Check each question carefully to ensure that it will indeed provide the information you need, and that the meaning of every word is clear. Go back and revise your survey!

Next, give the questionnaire to a small group of people, who preferably know little or nothing about the research itself. Ask them to read the questionnaire to see if they, too, can clearly understand what is required and whether the flow makes sense to them. Go back and revise your survey!

And finally, select a small number of people from your sampling frame, if at all possible, and test your questionnaire with them (even if your questionnaire turns out to be "pretty good", you should not include these respondents in your final sample). Look at the frequency distribution: if there are too many "neutral", "don’t know" or "don’t remember" responses, you need to revise the questions themselves. If the questions that require a written response look too "squished", provide more generous spacing.

You should ask the respondents to also comment on the questionnaire itself, and on whether you should perhaps be asking some additional questions relevant to the research problem as stated in the introduction. Since people are often reluctant to admit that they might have difficulty responding, ask them whether they believe other people would have difficulty and which questions in particular might pose problems? You will elicit many useful comments, so: Go back and revise your survey!

And remember that you will have to go through the same steps for each language used for the survey, and that you will need to check for cultural and regional differences as well in these cases.

Pamela Narins, the Market Research Manager for SPSS, has provided "13 important tips to help you pretest your surveys" that you should definitely check out!