Getting the questionnaire content right

For ease of explanation the questionnaire design process is discussed as a staged progression. In practice, like much research procedure, it is an iterative process. Decisions made at one point may affect what has gone before as well as what comes after, so that continual revision and refinement of the questionnaire is going on throughout the process.

In Chapter 5, the first step in the whole research procedure was to define the problem and the data required to solve it. From this statement of general research objectives it is now necessary to specify exactly what information is to be collected using a questionnaire survey. The manager involved should personally give adequate time and attention to ensure that the objectives set for the questionnaire will result in production of the information required. Faults in questionnaire design commonly occur because this important stage has been completed too hurriedly. What may happen then is that the objectives are never properly clarified. The researchers do what they assume is required, and this can result in expensively produced information, which at best leaves some questions unanswered, and at worst answers none of them. The decision maker has a prime responsibility for ensuring that if the survey objectives, as defined, are carried out, then this will meet the information need precisely.

Once the survey objectives have been agreed, they form the framework within which the rest of the process is set. All subsequent stages are measured against the objectives to see whether they help to fulfil them. The next step is to transform the survey objectives into a list of data requirements and then into a list of questions. Each question on the list must be checked against the research objectives: does the information it will generate contribute directly towards meeting those objectives? If the data that will be generated is interesting, but not essential, then the question should be deleted. Asking non-essential questions will only lengthen the questionnaire and potentially reduce the quality of the rest of the data gathered, by increasing interviewer and respondent fatigue. Decision makers commissioning research will often think 'Well, while we're out there, let's ask ...', and so the questionnaire grows. However, it should be noted that the greatest costs in survey research are the fieldwork costs, so if the basic data required will only take a few minutes of interviewing time, then it may be reasonable to add further questions. For short factual data requirements, the use of an omnibus survey could be a more efficient way of generating the required information (see Section 4.4).

After ensuring that every question is essential to the purposes of the survey, and checking that all the purposes of the survey will be met by the questions to be included, the process of questionnaire construction can begin.

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