Humanizing Survey Question Design with a Qualitative Touch

Researchers know that “good” survey questionnaire design begins with a preliminary qualitative research phase that serves to expose the nuances of the research touchtopic or category – such as the most pertinent issues and the relevant concerns or “issues within the issues” – along with the manner by which the target population talks about these issues – that is, the particular words, expressions, and terminology used by the target group. In this way, the survey researcher can hope to create user-friendly survey questions that speak to respondents rather than at respondents.

A preliminary qualitative phase is good and necessary, but employing the talents of a qualitative researcher during survey question development is an equally-important step. Qualitative researchers spend much of their lives listening to people talk about a host of attitudinal and behavioral issues, listening to the use of language, and using these conversations to interpret where people stand in relationship to the research goal. Who better then to consider the intention of each survey question in conjunction with the results of the qualitative phase and to mold the questions in a recognizable, conversational format.

A qualitative touch may be all that is needed to transform a question such as

Do you think soft drink distribution is adequate?1

To something friendlier and more direct…

Are soft drinks easy to find when you want one?1

Or, modify a question such as

Is the fee structure on your depository account at Bank ABC within acceptable limits?

To something that clearly identifies the intention of the question…

Do you think the$5 ATM fee charged by Bank ABC is reasonable?

Or, clarify a question such as

How important is the portable nature of your mobile device in your day-to-day activities?

To something that explains terms and is more specific…

How has the ability to take your smartphone with you wherever you go altered your daily activities?

Utilizing qualitative sensitivities to unwrap the true purpose of survey questions while replacing corporate jargon with the way real people talk and think, humanizes the research “instrument” which is a win-win for researchers and respondents. Researchers gain higher rates of cooperation and completion (along with lower non-response); and respondents are not left to guess – and possibly guess wrong – the meaning of questions, allowing them to move more easily through the battery of questions and, in the end, find that they actually enjoyed the research process. Gee, imagine that.


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  1. Good points. Have been doing IDIs of late where I walk 10 or so folks through the online survey itself. They share with me the the things that are confusing in the directions or content of the question and note frustrations with the Web layout, etc. It is interesting that they join me in helping to make the survey better, but in doing so start to talk frankly and openly about the topic the survey is aimed at gauging. In an interesting way the survey becomes a projective tool to get depth.
    Worked wonders to improve the survey.


    1. This sounds like a great method. Kind of a combination cognitive interview and usability approach. And, better yet, participants can hardly go through that exercise without revealing something more about the survey topic than they would otherwise. I am sure, as you say, it “worked wonders.”


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