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Write Good Survey Questions to Get the Most Meaningful Responses

Many of us have attempted to complete a survey that was confusing or too long, and in general, just a pain to finish. If you want to get good data or feedback, it’s important to understand the user experience and not make it a painful process.

When helping with the evaluation forms for the 2013 Fall Conference, I noted there were more than 60 breakouts/activities to evaluate. Even if you didn’t attend a particular one, it was necessary to at least choose “did not attend”.  Using the “drop down” menu was very painful because first you had to click on the arrow to get to the options, and then the second step was to click on your choice. When there were more than 60 activities to rate, this became very cumbersome.

 drop down




I suggested using “radio buttons” (circles) instead which involves one click, making it easy for the user. The committee felt it was a good move.

radio button


Recently I was invited to complete a form, where the organization asked which date I was interested in volunteering. They used the “open text” box format, so I could type in anything I wanted.

text field


I typed in "Oct. 10". But there are many ways to type in that particular date:

  • 10/10
  • 10-10
  • Oct 10
  • Oct. 10
  • October 10
  • 10/10/13
  • 10-10-13
  • Oct 10 2013
  • Oct. 10, 2013
  • October 10, 2013
  • Otcober 10
  • and so on

Information including the date available to volunteer will be nicely captured in spreadsheet. But since everyone has their own way of entering a date, the person analyzing the data is going to have a headache in trying to make sense of it. Some start with words. Some start with numbers. There's no easy way to sort the date. In the bullets above, there are 11 ways to say "October 11" and it could get really messy without a consistent format to answer in. Instead of using a text box, I would have used a drop down in this case with a month and a date. Then it would be easy to sort the data by standard replies.

Here are some of the more commonly-used question types for forms. Some offer close- ended responses while others offer open-ended responses.  

Closed-Ended Responses

1. Radio Buttons

  • Use only when one option can be chosen
  • Works well for “Yes” or “No” questions
  • Example: Will you be able to attend? Yes or No

 2. Checkboxes

  • Use when more than one option can be chosen
  • Works well when for “choose all that apply” questions
  • Example: Which electronics do you own:
    X Toaster
    X TV
    X Game console
    Mobile phone

3. Scales

  • Use when you want to give a range of at least 3 measurements
  • Works well to provide a range of responses
  • Example: How useful was this presentation?
    1= very useful
    2= somewhat useful
    3=not so useful
    4= not useful at all

Open-Ended Responses

Text Boxes

  • Use when you want the respondent to have freedom to add information in their own words.
  • Works well when you’re not able to anticipate responses or there are too many to choose from.
  • Meant for short responses.
  • Example: What band would you like to see play next year?

Paragraph Boxes

  • Same as Text Boxes, but you’re allowed longer responses.
  • Example: having a comments section under any previous question so that a person can elaborate or comment on the option they chose.

Further Reading on Survey Design

Basics of Survey and Question Design (from
How to Choose Survey Questions (from eXtension)
Examples of “bad” survey questions

If you need help designing your survey, please contact me or Bob Bertsch (701) 237381

Sonja Fuchs, Web Technology Specialist, (701) 231-6403

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