Questionnaire: Definition, Examples, Design and Types

A questionnaire is a research instrument consisting of a series of questions for the purpose of gathering information from respondents. Questionnaires can be thought of as a kind of written interview. They can be carried out face to face, by telephone, computer or post.

Questionnaires provide a relatively cheap, quick, and efficient way of obtaining large amounts of information from a large sample of people.

Data can be collected relatively quickly because the researcher would not need to be present when completing the questionnaires. This is useful for large populations when interviews would be impractical.

However, a problem with questionnaires is that respondents may lie due to social desirability. Most people want to present a positive image of themselves and so may lie or bend the truth to look good, e.g., pupils would exaggerate revision duration.

Questionnaires can be an effective means of measuring the behavior, attitudes, preferences, opinions, and intentions of relatively large numbers of subjects more cheaply and quickly than other methods.

Often a questionnaire uses both open and closed questions to collect data. This is beneficial as it means both quantitative and qualitative data can be obtained.

Closed Questions

Closed questions structure the answer by only allowing responses that fit into pre-decided categories.

Data that can be placed into a category is called nominal data. The category can be restricted to as few as two options, i.e., dichotomous (e.g., “yes” or “no,” “male” or “female”), or include quite complex lists of alternatives from which the respondent can choose (e.g., polytomous).

Closed questions can also provide ordinal data (which can be ranked). This often involves using a continuous rating scale to measure the strength of attitudes or emotions.

For example, strongly agree / agree / neutral / disagree / strongly disagree / unable to answer.

Closed questions have been used to research type A personality (e.g., Friedman & Rosenman, 1974) and also to assess life events that may cause stress (Holmes & Rahe, 1967) and attachment (Fraley, Waller, & Brennan, 2000).


  • They can be economical. This means they can provide large amounts of research data for relatively low costs. Therefore, a large sample size can be obtained, which should represent the population from which a researcher can then generalize.
  • The respondent provides information that can be easily converted into quantitative data (e.g., count the number of “yes” or “no” answers), allowing statistical analysis of the responses.
  • The questions are standardized. All respondents are asked exactly the same questions in the same order. This means a questionnaire can be replicated easily to check for reliability. Therefore, a second researcher can use the questionnaire to confirm consistent results.


  • They lack detail. Because the responses are fixed, there is less scope for respondents to supply answers which reflect their true feelings on a topic.

Open Questions

Open questions allow people to express what they think in their own words. Open-ended questions enable the respondent to answer in as much detail as they like in their own words. For example: “can you tell me how happy you feel right now?”

Open questions will work better if you want to gather more in-depth answers from your respondents. These give no pre-set answer options and instead allow the respondents to put down exactly what they like in their own words.

Open questions are often used for complex questions that cannot be answered in a few simple categories but require more detail and discussion.

Lawrence Kohlberg presented his participants with moral dilemmas. One of the most famous concerns a character called Heinz, who is faced with the choice between watching his wife die of cancer or stealing the only drug that could help her.

Participants were asked whether Heinz should steal the drug or not and, more importantly, for their reasons why upholding or breaking the law is right.


  • Rich qualitative data is obtained as open questions allow the respondent to elaborate on their answer. This means the research can determine why a person holds a certain attitude.


  • Time-consuming to collect the data. It takes longer for the respondent to complete open questions. This is a problem as a smaller sample size may be obtained.
  • Time-consuming to analyze the data. It takes longer for the researcher to analyze qualitative data as they have to read the answers and try to put them into categories by coding, which is often subjective and difficult. However, Smith (1992) has devoted an entire book to the issues of thematic content analysis that includes 14 different scoring systems for open-ended questions.
  • Not suitable for less educated respondents as open questions require superior writing skills and a better ability to express one’s feelings verbally.

Questionnaire Design

With some questionnaires suffering from a response rate as low as 5%, it is essential that a questionnaire is well designed.

There are a number of important factors in questionnaire design.


Make sure that all questions are asked to address the research aims. However, use only one feature of the construct you are investigating in per item.


The longer the questionnaire, the less likely people will complete it. Questions should be short, clear, and to the point; any unnecessary questions/items should be omitted.

Pilot Study

Run a small-scale practice study to ensure people understand the questions. People will also be able to give detailed honest feedback on the questionnaire design.

Question Order

Questions should progress logically from the least sensitive to the most sensitive, from the factual and behavioral to the cognitive, and the more general to the more specific. The researcher should ensure that the answer to a question is not influenced by previous questions.


  • There should be a minimum of technical jargon. Questions should be simple, to the point, and easy to understand. The language of a questionnaire should be appropriate to the vocabulary of the group of people being studied.
  • Use statements that are interpreted in the same way by members of different subpopulations of the population of interest.
  • For example, the researcher must change the language of questions to match the social background of respondents” age / educational level / social class/ethnicity, etc.


Make sure it looks professional and includes clear and concise instructions. If sent through the post make sure the envelope does not signify ‘junk mail.’

Ethical Issues

  • The researcher must ensure that the information provided by the respondent is kept confidential, e.g., name, address, etc.
  • This means questionnaires are good for researching sensitive topics as respondents will be more honest when they cannot be identified.
  • Keeping the questionnaire confidential should also reduce the likelihood of any psychological harm, such as embarrassment.
  • Participants must provide informed consent prior to completing the questionnaire and must be aware that they have the right to withdraw their information at any time during the survey/ study.

Problems with Postal Questionnaires

At first sight, the postal questionnaire seems to offer the opportunity of getting around the problem of interview bias by reducing the personal involvement of the researcher. Its other practical advantages are that it is cheaper than face-to-face interviews and can contact many respondents scattered over a wide area relatively quickly.

However, these advantages must be weighed against the practical problems of conducting research by post. A lack of involvement by the researcher means there is little control over the information-gathering process.

The data might not be valid (i.e., truthful) as we can never be sure that the questionnaire was completed by the person to whom it was addressed.

That, of course, assumes there is a reply in the first place, and one of the most intractable problems of mailed questionnaires is a low response rate. This diminishes the reliability of the data

Also, postal questionnaires may not represent the population they are studying. This may be because:

  • Some questionnaires may be lost in the post reducing the sample size.
  • The questionnaire may be completed by someone who is not a member of the research population.
  • Those with strong views on the questionnaire’s subject are more likely to complete it than those with no interest in it.

Benefits of a Pilot Study

A pilot study is a practice / small-scale study conducted before the main study. It allows the researcher to try out the study with a few participants so that adjustments can be made before the main study, so
saving time and money.

It is important to conduct a questionnaire pilot study for the following reasons:

  • Check that respondents understand the terminology used in the questionnaire.
  • Check that emotive questions are not used, as they make people defensive and could invalidate their answers.
  • Check that leading questions have not been used as they could bias the respondent’s answer.
  • Ensure the questionnaire can be completed in an appropriate time frame (i.e., it’s not too long).

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2018). Questionnaire: definition, examples, design and types. Simply Psychology.


Fraley, R. C., Waller, N. G., & Brennan, K. A. (2000). An item-response theory analysis of self-report measures of adult attachment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 350-365.

Friedman, M., & Rosenman, R. H. (1974). Type A behavior and your heart. New York: Knopf.

Holmes, T. H., & Rahe, R. H. (1967). The social readjustment rating scale. Journal of psychosomatic research, 11(2), 213-218.

Smith, C. P. (Ed.). (1992). Motivation and personality: Handbook of thematic content analysis. Cambridge University Press.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.