I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about survey writing. In 2008, I took a short three day course with Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, which made me think about survey writing in a new way. In particular, I started realizing that the surveys that I wrote were poorly written.

Since then, it seems like I keep finding poorly written surveys everywhere I turn. Here are some examples I’ve found recently in  my everyday life:

The US Postal Service sent me a Postal Customer Questionnaire lately because they were thinking about closing my branch. “If you now receive Post Office box service, you will be able to transfer your remaining box rent credit to another post office, or you may be eligible to receive a partial refund. How would you feel about consolidating the Dinkytown station with other postal stations? Better, Just as Good, No Opinion, or Worse” I answered No Opinion. Then I crossed it out and marked Worse. Then I crossed it out and marked No Opinion and wrote a three sentence explanation in the “Please explain” section. Why was this such a hard question to answer? Well, primarily because they’d never asked me about how I’d feel about the consolidation WITHOUT the refund. So now they were merging my opinions about the consolidation in with my feelings about the refund. Personally, I was mad that they were consolidating and I’d feel cheated if they didn’t refund my money, but really the refund wouldn’t change my opinion at all. No where on the survey did they ask me anything to this effect.

This second example isn’t exactly a survey, but is still getting at some of the problems with survey writing. I’m having problems with allergies and need to go see an allergy specialist. So the clinic sent me my paperwork so I could fill it out before my appointment. Leaving aside many of my other complaints (and there are many!), the first main page has a section entitled “Chief complaints of patient.” For each option you are supposed to check “Yes” or “No.” The options are Asthma, Rhinitis (Hay fever), Urticaria (Hives), Eczema, Sinusitis, Chronic recurrent bronchitis, Nasal polyps, Recurrent otitis media,  Recurrent pneumonia, G.I. disturbances (colic, diarrhea, etc), Insect sting reaction, drug reactions, or blank lines. Now I’m a pretty smart person. I’ve been in school for a grand total of twenty-one years now, but I can’t tell you what many of those things are, and I can’t tell you which ones I should select. I have a runny nose and a cough. I’ve been diagnosed with something, but I forget what it is, and it didn’t include the second two symptoms, just the runny nose. Why on earth is this questionnaire that is obviously for the patient or patient advocate full of doctor jargon instead of patient jargon?

Now that I know better, I want to do my best to avoid writing bad survey questions, but at the same time, it’s incredibly difficult to write good survey questions. So what I’ve been doing is writing my same old, same old questions and then revising…and revising…and revising. Trying to revise them to turn them into good questions isn’t easy, but I try. I also ask for a lot of feedback and am very self-critical. One proof-reading pass doesn’t cut it for a survey, even if it’s only going out to 10 people. That would reflect poorly on me, my advisor, my lab, and my university…so I do more work. Hopefully if you take one of my surveys, you’ll see the result of this work, and if not, I hope you’ll take a moment to let me know.

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