Principles of Questionnaire Construction


Target the vocabulary and grammar to the population be surveyed.

Avoid ambiguity, confusion, and vagueness.

Avoid emotional language, prestige bias and leading questions

Avoid double-barrelled questions

Don't assume the respondent is an expert on themselves (unless you have no choice)

Avoid asking questions beyond a respondent's capabilities

Avoid false premises

Avoid asking about future intentions (if you can)

Avoid negatives and especially double negatives

Question Placement

% agreeing to questions: Yes to #1 Yes to #2
Heard #1 first 54% 75%
Heard #2 first 64% 82%


Filtering "Don't Know"

There are three ways of dealing with "don't know".

Standard format. No "don't know" option is presented to the respondent, but is recorded if the respondent volunteers it.

Quasi filter. A "don't know" option is included among the possible responses.

Full filter. First the respondent is asked if they have an opinion. Then, if yes, they ask the question.


Standard format. Here are some questions about other countries. Do you agree or disagree with each statement?

  1. The Russian leaders are basically trying to get along with America.

Quasi filter. Here is a statement about another country. "The Russian leaders are basically trying to get along with America." Do you agree, disagree or have no opinion on that?

Full filter. Here is a statement about another country. Not everyone has an opinion on this. If you do not have an opinion, just say so. Here's the statement:

  1. The Russian leaders are basically trying to get along with America.

Do you have an opinion on that? [If "YES"] Do you agree or disagree?


% giving each response Standard Form Quasi-Filter Full Filter
Agree 48.2 27.7 22.9
Disagree 38.2 29.5 20.9
No opinion 13.6 42.8 56.3


Open-ended versus Closed-ended Questions

An openended question is one in which you do not provide any standard answers to choose from. For example, these are all open-ended questions:

  1. How old are you? ______ years.

  2. What do you like best about your job?

A closed-ended question is one in which you provide the response categories, and the respondent just chooses one:

  1. How old are you?
    (a) 12 - 15 years old
    (b) 16 - 25 years old
    (c) 26 - 35 years old
    (d) 36 - 45 years old
    (e) practically dead

  2. What do you like best about your job?
    (a) The people
    (b) The diversity of skills you need to do it
    (c) The pay and/or benefits
    (d) Other: ______________________________ (write in)


There are lot of reasons for choosing one form over the other. Here are some of the issues:

  Advantages Disadvantages
  • Easy and quick to answer
  • Answers across resps easy to compare
  • Answers easier to analyze on computer
  • Response choices make question clearer
  • Easy to replicate study
  • Can put ideas in resp's head
  • Resps w/ no opinion answer anyway
  • Resps can feel constrained/frustrated
  • Many choices can be confusing
  • Can't tell if resp. misinterpreted the question
  • Fine distinctions may be lost
  • Clerical mistakes easy to make
  • Force respondents into simple responses
  • Permit unlimited number of answers
  • Resps can qualify and clarify responses
  • Can find the unanticipated
  • Reveal resps thinking processes
  • Resps give answers w/ diff. level of detail
  • Answers can be irrelevant
  • Inarticulate or forgetful resps are at disadvantage
  • Coding responses is subjective and tedious
  • Requires more resp. time and effort
  • Intimidates respondents
  • When resp omits a response, can't tell if its because
    of belief or just forgetfulness


Closed-Ended Questions

Watch out for overlapping response categories

This question:
  1. What is your annual household income?
    a. Less than $10,000
    b. $10,000 to $25,000
    c. $25,000 to $35,000
    d. $35,000 to $50,000
    e. $50,000 to $75,000
    f. More than $75,000 

If a person's income is exactly $25,000, which category do they use?

The Ratings Format

In this format, we ask people to answer questions like this:

  1. In your opinion, how liberal is your mother?
    1. Not at all liberal
    2. Somewhat liberal
    3. Very liberal
    4. She's a stinking communist!

  2. Children must be allowed to make their own mistakes.
    1. Disagree strongly
    2. Disagree somewhat
    3. Neither agree nor disagree
    4. Agree somewhat
    5. Strongly agree

The result of a rating question is an ordinal-level variable (which is often treated as interval in data analysis).

Odd or even number of steps in the response scale?

In general, it is suggested that you use an odd number of steps in order to allow the respondent to express a middling or neutral strength of opinion. This can be problem with some respondents who refuse to express an opinion and give the middle category for all questions. However, the alternative can be even worse: respondents who have no or neutral opinion being forced to choose negative or positive and doing it randomly.

How many steps in the response scale?

Statistical reliability of the data increases sharply with the number of scale steps up to about 7 steps, then it increases more slowly, leveling off around 11. After 20 steps it decreases sharply. However, the more steps you have, the more difficult it is for the respondent, and possibly the less valid the responses because of that.

If variables are going to be combined additively, like when you create a scale or index, then the number of steps is not an issue for reliability. You can use two steps (true/false) if you like. I like to use 3-point response scales because they are quick and easy for respondents.

Direct Magnitude Scaling

Magnitude scaling is a method of obtaining ratio-scaled data from informants. The basic idea is to give respondents an anchor point, and then ask them to answer questions relative to that anchor point. For example, suppose you are interested in the severity of crimes. Start by assigning a number to one crime. For example, take "felony" and tell the respondent that the severity of a felony is 100 units. Now say: "ok, if felony is 100 points, how much is "murder"? If you think murder is 10 times as bad as a felony, then write down 1000. If its twice as bad as a felony, write down 200. Then you ask about every other crime.


Rank ordering is a method that works well with a small number of objects, such as 10. For example, instead of rating how serious each of a set of organizational problems are, you could ask the respondent to simply sort them in order of most to least serious.


In this method, you present items two at a time, and ask respondent to pick which one has more of some attribute. For example, you can present organizational problems and ask which one is more serious.

Copyright 1996 Stephen P. Borgatti Revised: September 30, 1998 Home Page