Basics of Developing Questionnaires

© Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.
Adapted from the Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development.

Whether developing questions for questionnaires or interviews or focus groups, there are certain guidelines that help to ensure that respondents provide information that is useful and can later be analyzed.

Sections of This Topic Include

Types of Information Collected by Questions
Two Types of Questions

Key Preparation
Directions to Respondents
Content of the Questions
Wording of the Questions
Order of the Questions

Also see
Related Library Topics
There Is No Hope Of Doing Perfect Research
Creating and Implementing Your Data Collection Plan

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Types of Information Collected by Questions

Questions are geared to find out what people know, did, feel and think.
1. To find out what information they know, ask them to describe something, e.g., "Please describe ..."
2. To find out what they feel, ask them, e.g., "How do you feel about ...?" or "How did you feel when ...?"
3. To find out what they think, ask them for their opinion on something, e.g., "How could the .. be improved?"
4. To find out what they did, ask them to describe an activity they did.

Two Types of Questions

1. Open-ended:
No options are provided for the respondent to answer the question. They must think of their own response and describe it in their own words. If respondents have and take the time to reflect on answers to the question, you can get more meaningful information than from closed questions.

2. Closed:
The respondent is given a set of alternative choices from which he or she can choose to answer the question, i.e., "yes," "no," multiple choice, a rating, ranking, etc. Closed questions can usually be answered quickly, allowing you to get a get a lot of information quickly. However, respondents may rush through the questions and not take enough time to think about their answers. Your choices may not include the answer they prefer.

How you configure your questions together, depends on whether they're used in questionnaires, interviews or focus groups.

Key Preparation

Before you start to design your questions, clearly articulate what problem or need is to be addressed using the information to be gathered by the questions. Review why you're doing the evaluation and what you hope to accomplish by it. This provides focus on what information you need and, ultimately, on what questions should be used. (See Planning Your Program Evaluation.)

Directions to Respondents

  1. Include a brief explanation of the purpose of the questionnaire.
  2. Include clear explanation of how to complete the questionnaire.
  3. Include directions about where to provide the completed questionnaire.
  4. Note conditions of confidentiality, e.g., who will have access to the information, if you're going to attempt to keep their answers private and only accessed by yourself and/or someone who will collate answers. (Note that you not guarantee confidentiality about their answers. If a court sued to see answers, you would not likely be able to stop access to this information. However, you can assure that you will make every reasonable attempt to protect access to their answers. You should consider using an informed consent form, as well.)

Content of Questions

  1. Ask about what you need to know, i.e., get information in regard to the goals or ultimate questions you want to address by the evaluation.
  2. Will the respondent be able to answer your question, i.e., do they know the answer?
  3. Will respondents want to answer the question, i.e., is it too private or silly?

Wording of Questions

  1. Will the respondent understand the wording, i.e., are you using any slang, cultural-specific or technical words?
  2. Are any words so strong that they might influence the respondent to answer a certain way? Attempt to avoid use of strong adjectives with nouns in the questions, e.g., "highly effective government," "prompt and reliable," etc.
  3. To ensure you're asking one question at a time, avoid use of the word "and" in your question.
  4. Avoid using "not" in your questions if you're having respondents answer "yes" or "no" to a question. Use of "not" can lead to double negatives, and cause confusion.
  5. If you use multiple choice questions, be sure your choices are mutually exclusive and encompass the total range of answers. Respondents should not be confused about whether two or more alternatives appear to mean the same thing. Respondents also should not have a clearly preferred answer that is not among the alternative choices of an answer to the question.

Order of Questions

  1. Be careful not to include so many questions that potential respondents are dissuaded from responding.
  2. Attempt to get recruit respondents' motivation to complete the questionnaire. Start with fact-based questions and then go on to opinion-based questions, e.g., ask people for demographic information about themselves and then go on to questions about their opinions and perspectives. This gets respondents engaged in the questionnaire and warmed up before more challenging and reflective questions about their opinions. (Consider if they can complete the questionnaire anonymously; if so, indicate this on the form where you ask for their name.)
  3. Attempt to get respondents' commentary in addition to their ratings, e.g., if the questionnaire ask respondents to choose an answer by circling an answer or provide a rating, ask them to provide commentary that explains their choices.
  4. Include a question to get respondents' impressions of the questionnaire itself. For example, ask them if the questionnaire was straightforward to complete ("yes" or "no), and if not, to provide suggestions about how to improve the questionnaire.
  5. Pilot or test your questionnaire on a small group of clients or fellow staff. Ask them if the form and questions seemed straightforward. Carefully review the answers on the questionnaires. Does the information answer the evaluation questions or provide what you want to know about the program or its specific services? What else would you like to know?
  6. Finalize the questionnaire. Finalize the questionnaire according to results of the pilot. Put a date on the form so you can keep track of all future versions.

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For the Category of Evaluations (Many Kinds):

To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.

Related Library Topics

Recommended Books

Evaluation (General)

Program Evaluation



Evaluation (General)

The following books are recommended because of their highly practical nature and often because they include a wide range of information about this Library topic. To get more information about each book, just click on the image of the book. Also, a "bubble" of information might be displayed. You can click on the title of the book in that bubble to get more information, too.

Program Evaluation

The following books are recommended because of their highly practical nature and often because they include a wide range of information about this Library topic. To get more information about each book, just click on the image of the book. Also, a "bubble" of information might be displayed. You can click on the title of the book in that bubble to get more information, too.

Nonprofit Program Design, Marketing and Evaluation - Book Cover Field Guide to Nonprofit Program Design, Marketing and Evaluation
by Carter McNamara, published by Authenticity Consulting, LLC. There are few books, if any, that explain how to carefully plan, organize, develop and evaluate a nonprofit program. Also, too many books completely separate the highly integrated activities of planning, marketing and evaluating programs. This book integrates all three into a comprehensive, straightforward approach that anyone can follow in order to provide high-quality programs with strong appeal to funders. Includes many online forms that can be downloaded. Many materials in this Library topic are adapted from this book.

Also see

Business Research -- Recommended Books

Supervision (Evaluating Employees) -- Recommended Books




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