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  • Writer's pictureKristin Williams

Question Writing: Keep It Short.

As we’ve said in the two previous blogs in this series, community engagement survey questions should be both simple and specific. They should also be short, which is what we’ll cover in this blog.


Like simplicity and specificity, question brevity is critical for three reasons:

  1. It ensures that survey participants understand what you are asking,

  2. It ensures that they can answer fully and confidently, and

  3. It ensures that they can provide the information you’re seeking for decision-making.


Here are some considerations to help you determine the appropriate length for your survey question.


Keep It Short.


Each survey question should be as concise as possible. In short: Use fewer words. The goal is to use the least amount of words necessary to let your respondents know what you’re asking. Questions should not have flowery language or superfluous information. If a word isn’t necessary to help respondents understand the question, it should probably be deleted.


In fact, when we make a question longer than it needs to be, we risk introducing language that is leading or loaded. Consider a question like: “What do you think of the exciting changes the City made to improve GreenTree Park this fall?” The words exciting and improve are not only unnecessary, but they also bias the question by suggesting that the changes made were upgrades to be excited about. There may be respondents who don’t agree with that characterization.


But Not Too Short.


It’s important to note that ‘short’ is a relative term and will depend on your specific needs. Not all survey questions can (or should) be asked in just a few words. While writing an unnecessarily long question can confuse participants or bias their responses, keeping the question too short may omit key context that people need in order to respond. Remember, even short questions should be specific, which may add length. Because parameters help respondents understand what you’re asking, you should include them–even if it makes your question a bit longer.


Let’s say that you want demographic information from respondents, so you include an income question. A common approach is to simply ask, “What is your income?” It’s short, sweet, and gets us the information we want. Or does it?


If you read our blog about specificity, you’ll likely spot some problems right away. While the question is indeed short, it is missing critical information to let the respondent know how to answer. Income during what time period? Measured how often? Before or after taxes? Is ‘your’ just me, or me and my spouse, or me and everyone in my household?


In this example, we need to provide parameters so respondents don’t have to guess what we mean. A stronger - yet longer - question would ask: “What was your household’s approximate annual income from all sources before taxes in 2021?” Of course, this means that the question is longer, but necessarily so. If your questions are murky, you’ll get murky data that you can’t really use.



Conclusion


Short survey questions are generally best, but you should always choose clarity over brevity. How short the question should be depends on how much detail you need to provide respondents so the question is clear. Being concise in this context means using only the words necessary for clarification. But be careful with your word choice: Using jargon can reduce your survey question by five or six words (at least), but it comes at a cost. Many respondents won’t understand your jargon and may not complete the survey.


That’s why brevity is the last characteristic we cover. Keeping survey questions short is important, but you should prioritize simplicity and specificity to make sure you get the data you need.


Don’t have the time or desire to learn more but want great surveys? Book a consultation with NineteenEleven.


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