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Asking the Right Questions: Developing Effective Surveys. An evaluation capacity-building training from the Tobacco Control Evaluation Center by Robin Kipke & Travis Satterlund June 10, 2011. What We’ll Be Covering. 10:00 Introductions, take knowledge pre-test 10:40 End-use strategizing

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asking the right questions developing effective surveys
Asking the Right Questions:Developing Effective Surveys

An evaluation capacity-building training

from the Tobacco Control Evaluation Center

by Robin Kipke & Travis Satterlund

June 10, 2011

what we ll be covering
What We’ll Be Covering

10:00 Introductions, take knowledge pre-test

10:40 End-use strategizing

11:35 Question types

11:50 Dillman principles for writing questions

12:15 Lunch break

1:15 Dillman continued

1:35 Writing Questions -- Practice

2:25 Survey sequencing & construction

3:00 Field testing surveys

3:10 Learning recap, setting action plans

3:20 Complete exit survey

3:30 Optional consultation with TCEC associates

training objectives
Training Objectives

Participants can explain and apply these concepts:

  • A survey is like a conversation
  • The 1st step of developing a survey is end-use strategizing
  • The aim of survey design is to reduce non-response and measurement error
a survey is like a conversation in that
Is communication with a purpose

Begins with an introduction

Needs to capture respondent’s interest

Starts with easy-to-answer ?s, builds to more substantial

Follows logical order, uses transitions to change topic

Finds a delicate way to raise sensitive issues

Winds down with less consequential subject

Indicates end with a sign off

A survey is like a conversation in that…

Photo by Robert Thivierge

where survey design fits in
Where Survey Design Fits In

Source: Youth Media Evaluation Toolkit 2005

what surveys can tell you
What Surveys Can Tell You

To inform your project about

  • Need for education or outreach
  • Community priorities or policy options
  • Level of support or opposition among stakeholder groups
  • Makeup of local populations
  • Extent of any change effected
  • Satisfaction with services
using reverse logic to develop questions
Using Reverse Logic to Develop Questions

Apply process to evaluation planning and development of data collection instruments

  • Purpose of data
  • Target audience for the data
  • How information to be used
  • Likely critics
  • Credibility threshold
  • Pieces of data
  • Data sources and formats
how it works
How It Works

An example

Try it out – pair activity

Think of the project you work on and how a survey could inform your efforts

Discuss with your team what you might want a survey to tell you, how it could be used

Work together to fill in each of the boxes of the End-use Strategizing worksheet


questions information types
Questions –Information Types
  • Attitudes—What one wants or prefers
  • Beliefs—What one thinks to be true
  • Behavior—What one does or has done
  • Attributes—What one is
questions structure types
Questions—Structure Types
  • Open-ended—No answer choices are offered
  • Closed-ended—Answer choices are offered
open ended questions
Open-Ended Questions


  • Short Answer
    • How long have you lived in this apartment?
  • Clarification (as part of skip pattern)
    • If you answered “yes” to the previous question, please explain why...
  • Comments
    • Please write any additional comments you may have about the potential smoke-free policy.
open ended questions1
Open-Ended Questions


  • Respondents may find it difficult to express their feelings
  • They take more time
  • Can yield inadequate answers without probing, follow-up questions
  • Analysis is time consuming and difficult
closed ended questions
Closed-Ended Questions


  • Yes/No questions
    • Have you used any tobacco products in the last 30 days?

 Yes  No

  • Multiple Choice
    • How many bedrooms does this apartment have?

 Zero (Studio)  One  Two  Three

 Other _________________

closed ended questions1
Closed-Ended Questions
  • Likert-type Scales
    • To what degree would you favor or oppose a policy to make at least half of the individual units in this apartment complex non-smoking?
    • How often do you attend coalition meetings?
closed ended questions2
Closed-Ended Questions

Examples (continued):

  • Ranking
    • On a scale of 1 to 5, rank the issues that matter most to you with 1 being most important.

___ Health care

___ Environmental protection

___ Safe neighborhoods

___ Quality of education

___ Fair wages

“Survey design is all about motivating people adequately so they complete the cognitive steps necessary for answering questions accurately and return the questionnaire.”

~ Don Dillman

the dillman principles
The Dillman Principles
  • The aim of survey design is to minimize measurement and non-response error
  • Measurement error: poor question wording or formatting leads to inaccurate answers
  • Non-response error: people who respond to the survey are different from those who did not

Don A. Dillman. 2007. Mail and Internet Surveys: The Tailored Design Method, 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

creating respondent buy in
Creating Respondent Buy-in
  • Motivate people to begin and complete survey
    • Use introduction/cover letter
    • Give compelling reason to participate
    • Ask interesting first question
  • Build trust by demonstrating competence
    • Employ good survey design
    • Make it easy to understand what to do
example introductions
Example Introductions
  • The Bonanza County Public Health Department is interested in finding out about how tenants feel about being around tobacco smoke. There are no right or wrong answers and they will be kept anonymous. We hope you will share your opinions with us.
  • To help protect Bonanza County multi-unit housing (MUH) residents from the dangers of secondhand smoke, the county Tobacco Prevention Program will be working with MUH owners and managers to adopt and implement a voluntary policy that prohibits smoking in…
  • The Bonanza County Tobacco Education Coalition is seeking public opinion on the effects of exposure to secondhand smoke and possible smoking policies. Your opinions are very important to us.
  • Smoke-Free Apartment Complexes – Tenant Survey
managing cognitive energy
Managing Cognitive Energy
  • Respondents will devote only a limited amount of mental effort to complete your survey
  • Make survey easy to understand, navigate and respond to
  • Cluster related topics
  • Cluster similar response types
  • Weigh need for survey length vs. complexity of questions
keep population of interest in mind
Keep Population of Interest in Mind
  • What cultural characteristics might affect their ability to understand the survey?
  • What is their literacy level?
  • What language do they feel most comfortable with?
  • How much time will they be willing to spend on taking the survey?
  • Is this a topic that interests them?
dillman 1 keep it simple
Dillman #1: Keep It Simple
  • Choose simple rather than specialized words
  • Use as few words as possible
  • (Sometimes these two rules conflict)
dillman 2 say what you mean
Dillman #2: Say What You Mean
  • Use complete sentences to ask questions(even when they seem self-evidently clear)
  • Please check one:  Male  Female
  • Age: ____
  • What is your gender?  Male  Female
  • How old are you? _____ years



dillman 3 it s all about timing
Dillman #3: It’s All about Timing
  • Avoid vague qualifiers
  • Instead use more specific frames
    • How often do you dine out at a restaurant?
dillman 4 balancing act
Dillman #4: Balancing Act
  • To avoid bias, state both sides of the attitudinal scale in the question stem
    • Would you favor or oppose a city policy to make all parks non-smoking?
  • Balance scales with equal number of positive and negative choices
      • Very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely
  • Neutral position is different from undecided
    • Neither supportive nor unsupportive vs. don’t know


balancing act example
Balancing Act Example

Good Example:

To what extent do you agree or disagree with the statement “Smokers have a right to smoke”?

  • Strongly agree
  • Somewhat agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Somewhat disagree
  • Strongly disagree
  • I don’t know
dillman 5 pick me
Dillman #5: Pick Me!
  • Beware of primacy effects in “mark all that apply” lists
  • Lists are OK for factual questions but not attitudes or preferences
  • Make each issue a yes/no or scalar question
    • Which type of organization do you represent in the coalition? (mark all that apply)

Local lead agency  Service organization

 Law enforcement  Educational institution

 Other ____________  I don’t represent an organization

Ok for list

  • Which of the following areas in the apartment complex do you think should be made non-smoking? (Mark all that apply)
  • courtyard  pool area  barbeque areas
  • balconies/patios  mailboxes  laundry rooms


  • Would you like any of the following areas of your apartment complex to be made non-smoking?
  • Courtyard  yes  no
  • Pool area  yes  no
  • Barbeque areas  yes  no
  • Balconies/patios  yes  no
  • Mailboxes  yes  no
  • Laundry rooms  yes  no
dillman 6 framing the issue
Dillman #6: Framing the Issue
  • Use cognitive techniques to improve recall
    • Guided imagery
    • Layer questions


When you have watched movies where actorswere smoking, did it make smoking seem more appealing to you?

framing the recall
Framing the Recall


Think about the last three movies you saw.

1. What type of movies were they? (mark all that apply)

 Action  Comedy  Drama  Documentary

2.In any of those movies, did any of the characters smoke?

 Yes

 No (go to question 4)

3. Did seeing the characters smoking make cigarettes seem more appealing to you?

 Yes

 No

framing sensitive issues
Framing Sensitive Issues
  • Save more sensitive questions towards the end
    • Once you’ve established a rapport
    • In case respondents refuse to proceed
  • Soften the impact of potentially objectionable questions
    • Preface personal questions with more general ones about the issue or ask about other people
  • Have you ever shoplifted any tobacco products from a store?
  • Revised Versions:
  • The questions which follow are being asked to help us understand where young people get tobacco products when they are underage. We really appreciate your help and that of students all over the state who have been asked to complete this survey honestly.
  • V1. Have you ever taken any tobacco products from a store without paying for them?
  • V2. Have you ever obtained tobacco products from…
  • a friend or relative?  yes  no
  • a store without paying?  yes  no
dillman 7 six of one half dozen of the other
Dillman #7: Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other
  • Make sure answer choices are mutually exclusive (numbers, conceptual overlaps)


How old are you?

 15-18 yrs. old 18-30 yrs. old  30-50 yrs. old  50+ yrs. old

When you tried to quit, where did you turn to for help?  my doctor  support group

 online service  quitline

 clinic or hospital  on my own

dillman 8 it doesn t add up
Dillman #8: It Doesn’t Add Up
  • Ensure that respondents can answer the question
  • Is it beyond the knowledge of respondents?
    • Were you aware that the California Air Resources Board has declared secondhand smoke to be a toxic air contaminant?
    • If the city were to pass a tobacco retail ordinance, how much should a license cost?
  • Avoid excessive specificity
    • How many cigarettes have you smoked within the last 30 days?
it doesn t add up continued
It Doesn’t Add Up continued
  • Use timeframes within memory

In the last year, how many tenants complained about drifting tobacco smoke?

  • Avoid unnecessary calculations

How long have you lived in this apartment?

______ months

dillman 9 don t be negative
Dillman #9: Don’t Be Negative!
  • Avoid asking respondents to say “yes” in order to mean “no”


In which areas of the apartment complex should people not be able to smoke?


v1 Which areas of the apartment complex would you like to be non-smoking?

v2 In which areas of the apartment complex should smoking be prohibited?

dillman 10 over a barrel
Dillman #10: Over a Barrel
  • Avoid double-barreled questions where two things are being asked in the same question
  • Watch out for “and”
  • Instead collapse into illustrative category, split into two questions, use “or”
over a barrel
Over a Barrel?

Is either of these double-barreled?

  • If the downtown area was free of secondhand smoke and cigarette litter, do you think you would be more or less likely to shop and attend events there?
  • Do you think retailers should have to pay for a license to sell tobacco which would earmark a portion of the funds to cover the expense of enforcement?
now you try it
Now You Try it

Write one question using each of these formats:


Multiple choice




survey design considerations
Survey Design Considerations
  • Create a clear navigational path
  • Provide signposts to guide respondents
  • Use graphic elements as clues

START ❶ Circle the response

  • Keep format visually uncluttered
survey design considerations1
Survey Design Considerations
  • Cluster like topics (e.g., knowledge, preferences, support)
  • Also cluster similar response formats (Likert scales, statements of agreement, etc.)
  • Use consistent scale directions throughout
  • Organize choices vertically, not horizontally
  • Beware of response set effect
  • Use pamphlet layout
sequencing questions
Sequencing Questions
  • Remember a survey is like a conversation
  • First engage interest, build trust, ensure success
  • Move from easy-to-answer to complex
  • General to more specific
  • Less personal to more sensitive
  • Balance open-ended vs. closed-ended
  • Save demographic questions for the end
field testing your survey
Field Testing Your Survey
  • Why it’s important
  • Who to involve
  • How to go about it
  • What to look for
  • What to do with the feedback
tcec your resource center
TCEC: Your Resource Center
  • Recorded webinars & training modules:
    • Online Surveys: Techniques & Tips (12/2/10)
    • Reducing Error: Designing Surveys that Work (9/30/10)
    • Journey of a Survey (1/28/10)
    • Developing a Survey Instrument (3/26/09)
    • End-use Strategizing for Creating DCIs (12/10/08)
    • Public Opinion Surveys (mini training)
  • End Use Strategizing Checklist
  • Tips & Tools #2 on writing questions
  • Hundreds of survey instruments in repository
  • Individualized help from Evaluation Specialists
reflecting on learning
Reflecting on Learning
  • Surveys are more than a brainstormed list of ???s
  • Start with end-use strategizing process
  • A survey is like a conversation
  • Follow design principles to reduce error
  • Need to motivate respondents
  • Manage finite amount of cognitive energy
  • Create navigational path
  • Make it easy to complete!
To reach us:

Email: [email protected]

Main phone line: 530.752.9951