Posted by: @spdlm | 17 Apr 11

The art of questionnaires

The Census

I treasure surveys and questionnaires. They provide me with very valuable information about what the customers feel about the product. When running an online business, without face-to-face sales point, customer voice is extremely valuable. I have made a few observations on the recent Census (in UK) which I actually looked forward to completing. While I think it is an unique opportunity for the government to take a snapshot of the country, I think it is a shame that the Office for National Statistics (“ONS”) had 10 years to prepare the ultimate questionnaire, and it is very far from what it could have been. I have some mixed feelings about the a) content, b) format, and c) the analogue-ness of it.

The content

In my opinion, one of the biggest change we have faced since our last Census is the way we communicate, gather information and emanate information. Census was available online, which means ONS could determine the preferred method of completing Census but was that enough? How about asking questions like “would you vote online?”, “how many items of equipment is connected to the internet?”, instead of “how many rooms are there in your property”. I completely understand that there has to be some consistency for the sake of historical data but a few well placed questions must be introduced to measure the actual change of society, I feel.

The format

I have seen both the online Census and the paper form. I think both were nicely designed, considering the diversity, the vast number and various disabilities they had to cater for. I think it was even a pleasant design form. My suggestion is with regards to the length. If you were completing this for a family, it would take more than a few minutes. This can be an issue if you have to pause the process halfway through. To be honest, this is the only reason why I did mine on paper. I answered a few questions at a time when I am placed on a hold (phone) or waiting for my PC to boot up etc. A questionnaire that takes more than 5 minutes to complete, can not be an online form, if you want a high completion rate. When designing a questionnaire, the quality of the answers can drop significantly if the audience becomes bored. Increasingly, we have less time for things that doesn’t excite us. In another words, make your marketing questionnaire as short as you possibly can.

The analogueness

This is not just a criticism on Census. In general, I feel that questionnaire designers have not stretched their imagination enough. Perhaps no imagination is requested of them. The point is, in this diverse and interactive world, I find it unacceptable and almost rude that I am not able to write my full name on something I have spent my time on. I have a quite long name and admittedly, many organisation, credit cards and airlines always struggle. Having said this, the Passport, driver’s license and other official documents have no problems with length of my name. So, please deal with it. Online form was very static. It skipped the right questions but that’s all it did.

Unique opportunity

The ONS could have learned a whole lot more if they understood what they wanted to know. What is the “mood” of the country? How happy is the nation compared to 10 years ago? How optimistic/pessimistic are they? What is their attitude towards the problems we face, such as the environment, energy, inequality, various discriminations, wars etc? How British is Britain? I would love to know all these and can think of many ways to rely on these data to formulate the future policies and plans, the long terms ones, not “for the next election only” policies.

How to design a perfect questionnaire

So, how do you get the most from your customers? You don’t get to ask them these valuable questions very frequently (hopefully more than once every 10 years like the government!)

  • Firstly, it is not a psychometric test. Make it short and be very efficient with the questions. Compromise the number of questions for the sake of obtaining high-quality, thought-through answers.
  • Selectable list. Although this may be obvious, if you can, try to guess the answers and print them, so that the customer can chose. Of course, you will have the “other” answer box for manual input.
  • Grading system. If you are asking the customers to rate a service or a product, make it simple. Maximum I would recommend for the points grading system is between 1 and 5. I don’t know what you can gain from 1 to 10 points system. Also, be consistent with the points – 1 for least/low/minimum and 5 for most/high/maximum etc. Questions on emotions can be quite confusing, so please simplify.
  • Allow room for criticism. This has nothing to do with the Census but the value of the responses you get from questionnaires will rise with decrease in bias. You must allow the customers to criticise you and the questionnaire must allow this to take place. You must listen to these criticisms because vocal customers are your ideal customers. Win them over, and they will be singing about you everywhere.
  • Little or no “text boxes” please. There probably should be about 2 to 3 free-form answer boxes, maximum. Free-form answers are harder to analyse and may not provide the types of answers you want. It is better to ask “Please rate how much you love our product” than asking “Please describe how you like our product”. Free-forms are great source of quotes you can use for your marketing materials, so by all means include it, but go gentle with it.
  • Like the Census, if you are going to repeat your questionnaires in future, there should be some base-line questions to form a historical database of responses, to quantitatively measure the changes in customer satisfaction etc.

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