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In Questionnaire Design, Communication is the Key to Smooth Sailing

Posted by Kirsten Rasmuson on Wed, Oct 12, 2011

“You would make great rail meat.”sail boat

If you’d asked me this April, I would have guessed that “rail meat” had something to do with a train and maybe an unlucky cow. But as sailors know rail meat  is “a sailing term used for people who use their weight to stop a boat from capsizing while racing.”

This summer a friend introduced me to sailing and gave me the opportunity to be rail meat in a of couple races.  I learned that sailing is both chaotic and loud, and it was during the endless shouting of commands (where the only word I really understood was “duck!”) that I came to realize that sailing is all about communication.  The teams that exceled were the ones that found a way to clearly communicate with each other.  In business as in sailing, breakdowns in communication can spell disaster.  In the world of market research, how we communicate our questions to respondents can have a real impact on the results we get.

Here are a few tips to avoid capsizing a project.

Know your audience.  I remember the very first time I was allowed to steer the boat during a fun outing and was told to “tack.”  My random wheel spinning elicited the question “what are you doing?” to which I honestly responded “I have no idea!”  When writing questionnaires, it is important to write for your respondents.  If they are not industry insiders, then don’t use those terms.  Remember, you will always get data back, but it may not be an answer to the question you posed unless it's clearly worded.

Keep it simple.  Use the simplest terminology possible when you are writing the questionnaire.  Then have someone outside your core project team read it to see how they interpret questions.  You might be amazed at the kinds of words people interpret differently.  For instance, if I ask you to define “marketing” I bet I would get many different interpretations back even though most readers of this blog are marketers.

Stay Organized:  A poorly organized and worded questionnaire can be frustrating at any length. Asking respondents to complete questions organized by topic is logical. Begin the questionnaire with simple questions, and move to the more complex. This increases the comfort of the respondent and the likelihood they’ll stay with you until the last question.

Like staying upright on a sailboat, developing questionnaires can be hard work but committing yourself to communicating clearly in your questionnaire will help keep your project sailing smoothly.

Kirsten Rasmuson is a Senior Project Manager at CMB. Next summer she looks forward to a promotion from rail meat to crew member.  

Topics: research design