The advantages and disadvantages of using questionnaires in research

News media, government agencies, political parties want to know what the public thinks; associations want the opinion of the members; companies want to know how their products are received by the public. Large companies also want to assess the attitude of their employees towards the organization. In every field a research, a survey is necessary to assess the situation and plan accordingly. The best way to collect all the information is through surveys.

Surveys can be conducted in various ways like telephone interviews, personal interviews, mail surveys, email surveys, internet surveys, computer direct interviews or questionnaires. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages and much depends on the target audience. We shall discuss here the advantages and disadvantages of using questionnaire research.

The questionnaire is a structured technique for collecting primary data in a marketing survey. It is a series of well written or verbal questions for which the respondent provides the answers. Written surveys or questionnaires are the backbone of successful surveys.  First and foremost a decision has to be taken that questionnaires are the best medium to collect responses for a particular case. A specific research method would depend upon various factors like details needed, available funds, the sample size and the location. Once the decision to conduct the research through questionnaire has been taken it is important to scientifically design the questionnaire so as to fetch the most useful responses. The construction, application and evaluation of the questionnaire call for skill. Developing and interpreting questionnaires demand great care and preparation. Questionnaires typically are administered via a personal or telephone interview or via a mail questionnaire. Newer methods include e-mail and the Web.

A badly designed questionnaire can annoy and frustrate the respondent to the extent that the responses can be intentionally tailored to give the wrong picture. The fundamentals of questionnaire designing have to be understood – who are the respondents, what the aim of the survey is, what type of questions can be asked, what responses should be built in, how to lay the questionnaire and how to test it. The wordings of the questions have to be unambiguous and easily understood. Proper sequence of the questions has to be maintained. It is advisable to test the questionnaire in a small group before conducting the final survey.

A well structured questionnaire has definite advantages. When large samples and a large geographical area have to be covered questionnaires are cost effective compared to face-to-face interviews. Most people have had some experience in answering questionnaires and hence are not apprehensive when asked to submit responses. Questionnaires are easy to analyze and data entry can be done easily through the help of computer software packages available. Questionnaires reduce bias. Mail questionnaires may result in certain amount of bias but anonymous questionnaires are more accurate. There is no interaction with the researcher who cannot influence the responses of the respondent. The respondent is relaxed and can give an honest opinion. Written questionnaires are less intrusive than other forms of research for instance like the telephone interviews. It has also been found that if a follow-up letter is sent along with another copy of the questionnaire the respondents are encouraged to respond who otherwise might not have. Thus it increases the number of responses. Another way to improve the number of responses is if some sort of reward is assured to the respondents. For exploratory research open-ended questions help the respondents to better express their views. A mail questionnaire gives the respondent the flexibility to complete it at his convenience.

One of the major disadvantages in written questionnaires is the low response rate. Low response results in inaccurate statistical analysis. Response rates vary widely from one questionnaire to another (10% to 90%). Another disadvantage of questionnaire is the inability to probe responses which is possible in face-to-face interview. Questionnaires do not allow any flexibility to the respondents. Respondents normally want to qualify their responses and providing space for comments can, to some extent, overcome this disadvantage. Comments on responses are the most useful in assessing responses as they provide insight into the information. Gestures and visual clues are not available in questionnaires. Lack of personal contact affects different people and situations differently. Where factual information is solicited written questionnaire does not affect the quality but when the issue is sensitive and needs probing, then questionnaires stand at a disadvantage. Audio, video and graphic clips cannot be used in questionnaires. Another major drawback is that when questionnaires are sent in the mail it is difficult to ascertain that the response is from the same person who the questionnaire was meant for. Housewives respond for their husbands; children respond for fun and business executives may hand it over to their sub-ordinates to handle it. Questionnaires ask for personal details like contact details and this puts off many people. They refrain from giving out these details for fear of misuse. Questionnaires cannot be used where people are uneducated and are unable to read and understand the questionnaire.  Clarifications cannot be sought in written questionnaires which is possible in interview questionnaires.

We can conclude saying that questionnaires do have advantages while certain things should be kept in mind before launching the survey. The questionnaire should be short and simple to make it effective. The questionnaire should start with an introduction and a welcome message. Including ‘don’t know’ or ‘not applicable’ in the responses would fetch more honest responses as the respondents do not feel coerced to respond just anything. If the questionnaire is neatly laid out and well planned respondents would be more willing to go through it than even give a second glance at a clumsy paper. The questionnaire should start with easy to understand questions and gradually build up so that respondents to not fall out mid-way. Any survey can provide ‘some’ answers but choosing sensible questions and administering it with care can change the results dramatically, thereby paying dividends for the efforts put in.

Reference List:

Al-Quds University, Types of Research, Chapter Two, viewed 03 October, 2005, <http://www.alquds.edu/research_office/inc/Ch2_Web.pdf>

Creative Research Systems, The Survey System, viewed 03 October, 2005, <http://www.surveysystem.com/sdesign.htm>

Survey Software, viewed 03 October, 2005, <http://www.statpac.com/>

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