The research questions you write for a research endeavor aren’t just questions—they’re your research instruments. These questions will drastically frame the kinds of responses you will receive. If you write a question that forces participants to respond in a specific way, the results of your research will be irrevocably tilted in a particular direction. In other words, any claims you make based on research results won’t be valid because those results were already framed and shaped in a specific way. When you’re developing an interview schedule, you’re designing a tool whose purpose is to capture an accurate and clear picture of the world as it really exists. It’s time to put on that writing that because writing questions requires careful attention to every. single. word.

Asking the Right Questions

In design research, we ask questions so the answers we receive can inform the creation of interventions. Rachael Herrscher, CEO of TodaysMama.com shares some great insights on this process in her TEDx Talk: What?: Asking the Right Questions.

What to Avoid when Writing Questions

Think carefully about what you want to know. Surveys, interviews, and focus groups all provoke different kinds of responses. For all three, there are some clear things to avoid:

Assumptive Questions

These are questions that present a specific view and force participants into that view.

Apple’s iOS is obviously superior to Android OS. Which operating system do you use?

a non-assumptive version of this question would be…

Which mobile operating system is easier to use, Apple’s iOS or the Android OS?

Don’t lead people down a path and forces them into an answer. You’re trying to capture an accurate picture of the world, remember? If you color that picture before it can be captured, your results will be tainted.

Biased Questions

These questions are kind of like assumptive questions—they lead the participant down a specific path and limit their ability to respond objectively.

Wayfinding signage at Denver International Airport is terrible, isn’t it?

a non-biased version of this question would be…

How easy to use is wayfinding signage at Denver International Airport?

That first question framed signage in a bad light. If we allow participants to share their own thoughts without being led along, responses will be more accurate.

Questions that are Actually Multiple Questions

We know you’re excited to learn a lot about your topic, but curb your enthusiasm when it comes to research questions. Just ask one thing at a time or you run the risk of frustrating participants.

Do you think the cupcake purchasing interface is easy to use and that it should be expanded so people use it to purchase all different pastries in the app?

If a participant doesn’t think the cupcake purchasing interface is easy to use, then the second half of the question will be annoying to them. It would be far better to break these questions into several parts and use the ending part only if you need it.

Do you think the cupcake purchasing interface is easy to use?

If the participant answers “yes,” then ask…

Do you think it should be expanded to purchasing all pastries in the app?

Use only the questions you need and keep things simple when writing research questions. Sometimes, taking a flowchart mentality helps… think “if I ask this… and get this answer… then I can ask…” etc.

Asking Unrelated Questions

If you’re doing it right, you have developed a clear research direction for your project including an overall question and a bounded population. When writing questions for research instruments, stay on target and don’t ask unrelated questions.

Let’s say you are operating a research project that studies the safety of toddlers in public places. You want to know what parents think are the safest ways for ensuring toddlers learn to walk but can be kept close. Here are some example questions on a survey for this project:

What are your thoughts on using a leash for toddlers so parents can keep them close in public places?

Do you think toddlers are developmentally ready to explore the world on their own?

The first question is on-point. Answers would tell us a lot about what parents think about leashes. The second question, while interesting, is unrelated to toddler safety and the instruments used to keep them safe.

Resist the urge to ask tangential questions. In interviews and focus groups, these tangents will often happen if questions are left open-ended, but frame questions so they stay focused so you get the data you need and they respect participants’ time.

Asking Only Yes/No Questions in an Interview

Your job as an interviewer is to get participants to share. We want them to talk as much as possible about the topic we’re studying. If you ask questions whose answers are only yes or no, you prevent participants from sharing.

Do you like to eat Gumbo?

Participants can only answer this question two ways: yes or no. After they answer, the interaction ends. We miss out on learning how they feel about Gumbo. Instead, ask an open-ended question like this:

How do you feel about eating Gumbo?

This invites participants to share whatever they think about Gumbo. Their response will likely reveal if they like it or not.

Getting Too Wordy

Writing detailed questions render clear results; however, there is such a thing as writing “wordy” questions that are hard to understand and wind up frustrating participants.

Do you believe school band uniforms should be made of synthetic materials because they must stand up to wear and tear over many years or are you a proponent of natural materials because these breathe more effectively which improves band member comfort?

a more concise but still effective version would be…

What are your thoughts on the use of synthetic fabrics in school band uniforms?

Participants will tell you what they think when they answer a question. You don’t have to give them every single detail about phenomena within the question.

Vague Questions

Open-ended questions are great because they allow participants to share their thoughts fluidly. However, it’s possible to ask questions so openly that you may not get the information you seek.

If we are studying keyboard button sizes on laptop computers, we could ask the vague question:

What do you think about computer keyboards?

…but participants could answer that they think keyboards are silly when voice recognition has improved so much, or they could respond that they sound nice, or they may share that keyboards are hard to use because the buttons are hard to press.

a more effective question would be…

What do you think about the usability of computer keyboards?

Wordy questions say too much, but vague questions can render responses outside the research, Choosing the right mix of words will increase the likeliness that you’ll get what you need for the research.

Pay Attention to Every Word

Each word matters when writing questions. Think ahead to what you really want to know, then sculpt questions so they will most likely achieve your goals.

Dennis Cheatham

Associate Professor, Communication Design

Miami University