Published October 26, 2023

Don’t Get Stuck Writing Research Questions

4 min read

User engagement is low and you need to figure out why. So you decide to conduct a quick survey. You select a freeform response question, but your mind goes blank when you’re prompted to write a research question.

Unfortunately, this happens far too often.

We understand research is essential to building a great brand or product. But what interview or survey questions do you ask? How do you know you’re not introducing bias? After all, research is an investment. Asking the wrong questions is a risk.

In this article, we will explore the importance of writing good research questions, the role of questions in the research process, and the difference between survey questions and in-depth interview (IDI) questions. Let’s dive in.

Choosing research questions is the most difficult part of creating a survey

In our latest comment release, we used Helio to ask an audience of marketers, designers, and researchers what was the most difficult part of creating surveys. Our testing confirmed that comments would be valuable for getting approval and collaboration.

However, the results highlighted an important functional area we hadn’t considered—choosing and writing survey questions. Without a written question, the value of comments would be limited.

So let’s delve deeper into solving this problem. 

The role of questions in the research process

Before we dig into tips and tricks of writing good research questions, let’s first understand the role of questions in the research process. After all, you need to first understand what you want to learn before you can write any kind of survey question. 

According to Dave Hora, the research process looks like this:

  1. Figuring out what to learn
  2. Deciding how to learn it
  3. Uncovering or observing evidence
  4. Making sense of what was learned (“analysis”)
  5. Deciding what it means for us and how to act (“synthesis”)
  6. Ensuring consistent action

Dave suggests that people new to research should start in the middle of the process and work their way out, as illustrated below. Essentially, new researchers should shadow an experienced researcher and operate the platform(s) to build familiarity with the process. From there, expand deeper into both research design and analysis.

A visual of the research process, and what level of experience is required at each stage.

In this model, Dave suggests that senior researchers should be the ones to craft actionable research questions. This is because questions are the biggest factor in collecting the desired information. It’s a huge risk because if you get the questions wrong or introduce bias, it could derail your entire research project.

Fortunately, Helio addresses this problem. You can ask an audience one question at a time without having to get all your questions right before you launch. What’s even better? You can test your question with a handful of respondents before sending it to a broader audience. This way, you can speed up your trial-and-error process and question-writing skills. 

How do you craft good survey questions?

Now that we understand why questions are important and where they fit into the research process, let’s get to the tips and tricks for writing good questions. First, let’s start with surveys.

Surveys are the most popular tool makers and doers use to collect data. Most platforms are easy to use, and people are used to taking surveys, creating a low-friction exchange of feedback. Here is a handy framework from Chattermill on tips to avoid writing bad survey questions.

  1. Avoid leading questions
  2. Avoid loaded questions
  3. Avoid double-barreled questions
  4. Use Likert Scale
  5. Use Dichotomous questions
  6. Avoid double negatives
  7. Don’t ask vague questions
  8. Avoid using jargon
How to write reputable survey research questions

These are great rules of thumb. Especially when conducting online surveys and polls. Use this framework as a checklist for your next survey before you recruit participants.

How do you write good interview questions?

Unlike surveys, in-depth interviews (IDIs) give you more flexibility with your questioning because you can follow up for additional detail or clarity.

For example, “laddering” is an interview technique that helps you elicit the higher or lower-level abstractions of the concepts that people use to organize their world.

Laddering is a research question interview technique that helps you elicit the higher or lower level abstractions of the concepts that people use to organize their world.

In other words, “laddering” is a fancy pants way of trying to figure out what people want by asking “why” a bunch of times.

In a nutshell, laddering is a string of questions that help you arrive at intent through consumer perceptions and product knowledge that range from: attributes to consumption consequences to personal values. 

Here’s the first set of questions using the concept of Attributes:

  • Q: “Why did you select those wedding invitations?”
  • A: “I really liked the traditional design and the heavy card stock.”

Followed up by a concept called consumption consequences:

  • Q: “Why is the heavy card stock important to you?”
  • A: “The heavy card stock makes the event seem more formal and substantial.”

And finally, getting to personal values:

  • Q: “Why is it important that the wedding be more formal and substantial?”
  • A: “My friends had fabulous weddings, and I really want to do something on par with them.”

Can you use follow-up techniques in a survey format?

It’s challenging to use follow-up questions in a digital survey. With some crafting, you can ask follow-up questions based on selected responses, but it doesn’t give you the flexibility to drill down on the nuance of an individual response.

However, when you use Helio, you can respond directly to individual survey participants for clarity. Try it on your next test.

Get closer to your customers with Helio

Helio helps makers and doers quickly test prototypes, screens, and design ideas. Learn from real people in minutes. You can create feedback loops with your audience, make quicker decisions, and validate product concepts before investing time into engineering or design. Create your own test or use one of our ready-made templates.

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