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Writing a strong survey: Stop asking leading questions

by Ana Lopez
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Gina Boedeker is the founder and CEO of The Boedeker Groupa consumer insights and market research company.

I own a market research firm, so I understand the importance of collecting data from your target audience and using that data to drive product development, marketing, and strategic business decisions. I also know that surveys can provide quantitative, representative information that is extremely valuable to our customers.

But the quality of the data you get as output from surveys is only as strong as how well you craft the survey questions. One of the biggest pitfalls I see teams making is writing leading questions that can drive business results want hear, but those results are not always accurate.

What is a “leading question?”

Basically, a “leading question” is one that subtly (or not so subtly) guides a participant to an answer the company wants to hear. Unless you’re purposefully trying to use your data to make a point (and I’ve seen a lot of these types of surveys in an election year), your goal should be to omit any questions that would cause the contestant to survey would respond in a certain way.

Below are common ways I’ve seen companies ask leading questions and how to avoid them:

1. Don’t make assumptions for your participants.

“How well do you think we executed your project?” implies that your team did a good job. To make it more objective, rephrase the question, “How did we deliver your project?” It’s a subtle change, but the second question removes the implicit bias.

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2. Balance the options participants can choose from.

Suppose you want to know to what extent customers are satisfied or dissatisfied with your product or service. If you’re asking this in a multiple-choice format, make sure the scale is balanced for both positive and negative answers. For example, the following options would not work:

• Very satisfied

• Very satisfied

• Satisfied

• Somewhat dissatisfied

• Dissatisfied

As a rule of thumb, if you have “extreme” on the positive side, you should also have “extreme” on the negative side and give a neutral option in the middle of the scale.

3. Do not lead the witness (or participant).

Again, if you’re looking for the truth (and you should have started by knowing why you’re taking the survey in the first place), you don’t want to post claims for a question that lead participants to behave in a certain way.

For example, my company collaborates a lot with educational technology companies. We would never ask a question like this: “Most people who use this educational technology product say that the adaptive and personalized nature of the product is better than other products on the market. What do you think?” This is because the participant now knows exactly what we want to think them.

4. Avoid duplicate questions.

Remember to include two questions in one and limit how a participant can respond. Let’s say you organized an event for clients; you wouldn’t want to ask, “What do you think of the location and the quality of the speakers?” and then have multiple choice options where they can really only answer one question.

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They may have loved the location but hated your presenters. The integrity of the data you collect is compromised when you compose questions.

5. Don’t write compelling questions.

These questions are wrong. In my experience, they come up more in customer satisfaction surveys and employee surveys when you really want to highlight the positives. Examples of compelling questions include, “You’re leaving a positive Google review for us, aren’t you?” “You’re going to tell your friends to visit our restaurant, aren’t you?” Of course, these are full of bias, so they should be avoided at all costs.

Know the goals of your survey. If you want to get data that is not objective and that contains biases, yes, leading questions can help you get those data points. But the integrity of the data can’t be trusted if you don’t write the questions down in an objective way for your participants to answer.

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