Back to School Primer: Survey Question Types

Verint Team July 26, 2013

One way organizations are aiming to make a positive impact on their customer’s experience is by creating new, more interactive and engaging surveys and questionnaires. Improving the experience your customers have with the feedback instruments you employ is a great way to improve satisfaction and get improved response rates – one more “pencil in the box” if I can make up my own new analogy.

But it’s important to remember, there are just four fundamental question types to use when conducting surveys. These include essay questions, fill in the blank questions, choose-one questions and choose-many questions. The four basic question types can also be combined to create a fifth fundamental question type – a matrix question.

It’s valuable to refresh yourself on each of these basics, as well as when and where to use each type, before adding variations and interactive alternatives to your questionnaires. First lesson, then – the basic question types.

In an essay question respondents can enter a few words, a few paragraphs, and even a few pages. This type of question is usually displayed as a multi-line text area box. Typically essay questions store about 32,000 to 64,000 characters of text. Respondents can even copy and paste pages of text into essay questions. This question type is best used for understanding in detail what a respondent believes in their own words. In addition, gathering unstructured responses such as these provide context to other structured questions and exposes the “why” locked within customer responses.

A fill-in-the-blank question is displayed as one or more text boxes with short labels. This type of question is designed for gathering short responses, such as asking “What is your favorite color?” You would also use this question type to ask for contact or address information. Responses to text boxes are often validated to follow a common pattern, with validations such as email addresses, whole numbers within a range, real numbers within a range, dates etc. Open-ended questions such as these can be easier to write, but they are harder to analyze. Text analysis capabilities help analyze unstructured data in multiple text sources, extracting content using natural language processing to “understand” syntax and context.

The most common question type is the chose-one question type, where a respondent chooses one and only one of the available options. This is a single-select, multiple-choice question that is typically shown with radio buttons or dropdown boxes. Chose-one questions are a closed-ended question that can constrain the choices of the respondent. But, they are much quicker to answer and much easier to analyze. The difficulty in creating a closed-ended question is coming up with the appropriate choice list, a list that covers the most common answers and doesn’t bias responses.

The fourth type is the choose-many question type which is a multiple-select, multiple-choice question that allows the respondent to check all the choices that are applicable to the question. Most survey software uses the standard checkboxes of HTML forms to show these questions. Always include “None of the above” as an exclusive choice when using this question type. If you omit this option, then a valid response is to not select any of the choices, because none of them apply.

These four basic questions types can be combined together to create fifth type – a matrix question. This is a concise technique for combining questions with common topics and can be 50% faster for the respondent to complete versus having to answer each question separately. Matrix questions do raise some concerns though. The faster speed of completion may lead to errors and respondents can become prone to “straight-line” their answers to matrix questions, meaning they select the same choice for each question in a virtual straight line down the grid. Also, splitting the matrix into its component questions has been shown to have greater predictive validity, maybe because doing so takes respondents more time to answer each question. Because of these concerns with the matrix question, it’s appropriate to use caution when including them in your surveys.

Customers’ expectations have been shaped by word of mouth, their personal needs and their own past experiences. Routine transactional surveys after delivering the customer experience can be helpful for an organization to measure customer perceptions of service.

With these basic question formats mastered (which can only be said to be true once you’ve thoroughly tested your survey from the analysts perspective!); take the time to investigate the available variations on each. Examine how using media (images, audio, and/or video) and alternative response interactions (sliders, drag-and-drop, rotating content, etc.) affect the respondent experience. There’s also value in conducting A/B testing using standard versus interactive question types to measure response rates and data validity.

OK, schools out for the day! Make sure to review your homework, check your spelling, and practice your survey design basics. Any questions?