Following the emergence of the internet and search engines, the process of conducting research became much faster and simpler than that which was previously available with other methods. And the development of the online survey and questionnaire was also pivotal to this success and the growth in the number of businesses and people choosing to adopt online research tools.
So, what is a questionnaire?
Probably the best way to answer this is to highlight the difference between a survey and a questionnaire.
Essentially a survey is a combination of questions, processes and methodologies that looks to analyse and interpret data about others. While a survey always involves a questionnaire, the questionnaire only forms one small part of a survey.
In contrast a questionnaire is purely focused on the set of questions that are given to participants in order to obtain their feedback about something.
How questionnaires are used in research
The questionnaire is viewed as a primary research tool for researchers to gather data from a target audience.
Questionnaires typically include open ended questions, closed ended questions, or a combination of both. This allows researchers to collect data that is qualitative and quantitative in nature depending on their needs.
Compared to other research methods such as the interview, the questionnaire helps bring greater structure to any research, which can help maximise the success of whatever you’re trying to investigate and answer.
However, as with any approach there’s both advantages and disadvantages of questionnaires, which we will go on to look at next.
Advantages of questionnaires
When it comes to the benefits of questionnaires in research the positives are wide-ranging particularly with online questionnaires.
Compared with a face-to-face questionnaire delivered on site, over the phone, or by post, there are no labour, paper, printing, phone or postage expenses to worry about with the online questionnaire, making it a much more cost-efficient approach.
Reach people quickly:
With a wide choice of mediums with which to distribute your questionnaire, from emailing and texting it, to putting a link to it on your website, or making it downloadable via a QR code, you can reach out and gain feedback quickly from your respondents.
Thanks to the internet, it’s quick and simple to ramp up the audience for your online questionnaire and literally target them anywhere in the world. All you need to do is send them a link to your questionnaire, which could be executed through an automated email in a customer onboarding or lead nurturing campaign.
Compared with other approaches including face-to-face and over the telephone questioning, the ability to provide anonymity with an online questionnaire is a significant benefit, particularly when you are looking to survey respondents on sensitive issues.
When anonymity is provided it immediately puts respondents at ease and encourages them to answer truthfully, which is great when you’re trying to get a more honest and accurate picture of your subject of investigation, such as when you’re surveying employees about your company culture.
Flexibility for respondents over where and when to complete their questionnaire:
The great thing about the online questionnaire, is that respondents can choose when and where they will complete your questionnaire. With more time to fill-in your survey and even the flexibility to start it and then come back to it at another time to finish it off, can help boost your overall response rates.
While methods such as face-to-face and over the telephone questionnaires require the interviewer to process respondent answers, with the online questionnaire answers are automatically inserted into spreadsheets, databases, or other software packages reducing the risk of human error and enabling automatic validation of the data.
Disadvantages of questionnaires
While it's great to focus on the benefits when exploring the pros and cons of questionnaires in research, it’s also prudent to be aware of any disadvantages, so you can work on limiting them in your initial questionnaire design as well during the roll-out of your questionnaire to respondents.
Differences in understanding and interpretation:
When respondents are presented with a worded question, as opposed to the question being fully explained to them face-to-face or over the phone, this can lead to different interpretations of the same question by various recipients. This could also risk your results becoming rather subjective. In addition, some respondents simply may not be able to understand questions that may seem clear to the questionnaire’s creator, leading to skewed results.
It’s therefore prudent to create questions that are as simple as you can make them for answering. For more help on how to shape your questions for different audiences, why not take a look at our questionnaire template page for support.
When respondents are left to their own devices to answer questions, it can lead to some individuals skipping questions they don’t fancy answering, which can harm the validity of your results. Fortunately, today's online questionnaires have in-built rules that ensure respondents can't move on to the next question, until they’ve answered the one before it.
Some questions can be difficult to analyse:
When designing your questionnaire, it’s important to think very carefully about your choice of questions, because if you include too many of a particular type, especially open-ended questions, your data will more challenging and time-consuming to analyse.
Unless your research is more qualitative in nature such as in a field study, it’s likely that you’ll want questions that can deliver answers that can be evaluated quickly and produce results that can be acted upon.
So, it’s important to understand and be informed about the types of questions available to you. Why not take a look at our ‘Ultimate Guide to Online Survey Question Types’ ebook to help you to identify the best mix for your needs.
Difficulty in conveying feelings and emotions:
Compared to administering a questionnaire face-to-face, it’s not possible to observe emotions through facial expressions and body language with an online questionnaire. And without being able to observe these subtleties, a lot of useful data can be lost.
However, with greater care over the selection of your question types it’s possible to get a bit more emotion into an online questionnaire. For example, one variant of questions types you could consider include Likert scale questions. Typically based on a 5, 7 or even 10-point scale, Likert scale questions ask respondents to select their answers based on choices that range from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”, or “very satisfied” to “very unsatisfied”. This provides greater strength and assertion in responses than would be possible with a standard multiple-choice question.
No matter what questionnaire you’ve created, lack of accessibility can be a threat, if you’ve not taken this into account when designing your questionnaire.
Currently there’s estimated to be around 2 million people in the UK with some form of sight loss or visual impairment, so if you’re not making your questionnaire as easy as possible to view and read you could be missing out on a lot of responses. Accessibility compliance is also mandatory if you work in certain sectors such as the government and public sector.
It’s therefore prudent to ensure that any questionnaire platform you use has built-in accessibility options to help you comply to this.
We’ve all received invites at one time or another to provide our feedback, whether as a customer, employee or some other means. But for some people fatigue caused by too many questionnaires can be more of a problem than others.
Essentially there are two types of questionnaire fatigue:
Questionnaire request fatigue: this occurs before the process of completing a questionnaire even begins and affects those who have been overwhelmed by receiving too many questionnaire invites, making them less inclined to participate in your own one. Subsequently, this can negatively affect your response rates.
Questionnaire taking fatigue: this type of respondent fatigue happens during the completion of your questionnaire. It’s the result of surveys that are perceived to be too long, which also includes questions that are deemed irrelevant by the respondent. An indicator of survey taking fatigue can be found in a low completion rate.
There are ways in which you can reduce fatigue among your respondents. As a general rule of thumb you should aim to keep your questionnaire brief, only include the most essential questions and try to leave a reasonable time-lapse between sending your surveys. In addition, by making it as clear as you can to respondents about why you need their feedback, this can also serve as further enticement to getting them to the end of your questionnaire, even if some questions are more challenging to them than others.
You could also think about incorporating smart logic and actions into your questionnaire, to help ensure it stays relevant as possible and therefore reduce survey abandonment. Smart features that can make your questionnaire simpler to complete include skip logic, which allows you to hide irrelevant pages based upon the respondent's previous answers on previous pages and even skip them past entire sections. And through piping, answers from previous questions can be inserted into upcoming questions automatically where relevant to save respondents time.
For more tips on how to reduce fatigue among your respondents, you might like to read our ‘top tips to avoid response fatigue’ blog.
Why you need to think carefully about how you plan, design and use your questionnaire
When you consider that up to 80% of customers have abandoned a questionnaire halfway through it and 52% said they would not spend more than 3 minutes filling it in, it makes good sense to carefully plan and design your questionnaire, so it’s used in the most effective way.
By following our advice, not only can you maximise the many benefits offered by the advantages of questionnaires in research, but you can also minimise any potential disadvantages and turn some of them into positives that will further strengthen your questionnaire.
There are also plenty of tools and templates to help you along the way, such as the ones on our website, which can help you to create more relevant and effective questionnaires. If you take a look at our questionnaire builder page, you’ll find a handy introduction to developing your questionnaire online.
Similarly, on our questionnaire software page, you will find some more tips, including advice on how to build a questionnaire from scratch using one of our ready to use and fully customisable templates.
With a bit more detailed planning and careful thought during the design stage, you’ll quickly see the results of a more effective questionnaire, with a higher response rate and better-quality answers, you’ll soon be producing results that you can take positive and definitive actions with. There’s never been a better time to get started.