Writing a Survey Questionnaire from Scratch? Begin with the End in Mind

writing survey questionnaireThe second habit of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People according to Stephen Covey is “Begin with the End in Mind”.

This principle was taught to me early in my career, even before Covey published the idea.

I was working in my first job in Marketing Research and had a client who needed to have a questionnaire written from scratch. They had never done research, and there were no sample questionnaires to use as examples.  I had the research objectives but didn’t know where to begin. I was  faced with a blank sheet of paper. And that blank sheet of paper just laid there, taunting me.

As I struggled, my boss and mentor gave me some unusual advice. “Write the report first.”


How can I write the report? I don’t have the data yet.  How can I produce charts and graphs? How do I come to any conclusions or draw inferences without any data? I was perplexed.

Calmly, my boss repeated, “Write the report first.”  He explained that I didn’t need data.  Nor, did I need to know the conclusions of the research.  But, the best guide to the questionnaire, was to look forward to the end of the project, and develop a shell of a report that would provide the client with the answers that they needed. And, once I had that, I would know what questions I would need ask in the questionnaire to get the data to fill in the blanks in the report.

I tried it out and amazingly, it worked. I still had a blank sheet of paper in front of me, but now I could start thinking of what to write on the paper. I could begin to outline the story that I wanted to tell. Of course, I didn’t put together a PowerPoint presentation (PowerPoint had not yet been invented).  But, I did put together a detailed report outline with some sample charts and graph templates. Not only did having the report in mind guide me to what questions to include, it also eliminated a number of questions that I didn’t need to ask.

So, how do you do this?  Here’s a step by step process on writing a survey questionnaire:

  1. Make sure that you have clear, detailed objectives. Generalizations are not good enough. Understand what decision will be made or action taken based on the results of the project.
  2. For each objective, ask yourself, what kind of chart or graph will provide information to answer that objective. You may need a number of charts or graphs to build up to the answer.
  3. Once you have all the objectives addressed, organize your charts and graphs best to tell the story. Look for repetition or overlaps you can eliminate.
  4. Now, determine what questions need to be asked to provide data to populate the charts and graphs in your story. Remember, the order of the questions in the survey does not necessarily have to follow the order of the report.
  5. Finally, work on wordsmithing the questions to assure that they are easy to understand, clearly communicate the correct meaning, unbiased, and as concise as possible.

It may seem counterintuitive to write a report before you have your questions and your data.  But this is the best way to guide the development of a questionnaire that meets the objectives of a study. And the discipline of developing the report will keep your questionnaire focused and efficient.

Now that you know how to write a questionnaire, click here on how to write a marketing research report!

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