Prune, tune, postpone, explain – to improve your questionnaire

What can you do when your draft questionnaire gets too long? I’m suggesting ‘prune, tune, postpone, explain’ – four strategies to cut it down.

In my new book, Surveys That Work: a practical guide for designing and running better surveys, I ask you to use ‘Light Touch Surveys’ wherever possible – a series of surveys that feature very short questionnaires with only a couple of questions.

That’s not always possible, so here are some strategies for when you encounter a long questionnaire:

  • prune: remove questions you don’t really need at all
  • postpone: save questions you could ask later for a different survey
  • tune: make questions easier to answer
  • explain: tell people who answer why this question is important.

Start by pruning the questions

a rose bushThink of the analogy of a rose bush, where you need to prune out the deadwood to create something healthy.

As I write in Chapter 1, if you’re working in an organisation and word gets out that there’s a survey ahead, colleagues will pile in with all sorts of suggestions for questions they want answered. In fact, I actually encourage that behaviour as I find that it’s quicker in the long run to get all the suggestions early and then make reasoned decisions about them than to deal with the last-minute requests the day before the questionnaire goes out.

But it’s also true that every single question in the survey adds to the load for those who will answer and be rigorous with your pruning shears. Ask yourself (and your colleagues): why are asking this question? What decision will we make based on the answers we get?

You’ll rapidly end up with a much shorter selection of questions that are more tightly focused on the outcome you want from the survey.

Are there questions you could postpone?

My second tactic is to ask “Do you need the answers to all of your survey questions right now now?”

Bearing in mind what decisions you plan to make based on the answers you get, are all of those imminent or urgent? If not, are there questions you could ask in a future survey in order to simplify the current one?

Those postponed questions won’t be wasted – and removing them from the current questionnaire will improve your response rate and the help to keep the goodwill of the people you are asking.

Tune up the questions that remain

There’s a full chapter in the book on writing good questions, as well as plenty of other resources on this website which you may want to consult as you interrogate each question in your survey. Instead of sticking with the question someone first thought of,  drill down to turning it into the question you really need to ask. Does it make sense? Is the meaning clear and unambivalent? Is it something people can answer or will want to answer?

Try explaining your choice

If you have been through the other three processes I’ve outlined and believe you really do need to run this Big Honkin’ Survey now, can you justify that by clearly explaining what you are going to do with the information – to yourself and to the person who is asking?

Remember: prune, tune, postpone, explain

I’ve put my four strategies in the order that I do them in – but I usually remember them as ‘prune, tune, postpone, explain’ because I find ‘prune and tune’ easier to remember.

Photo by Istvan Hernek on Unsplash