Why use this guide?

Research results are only as good as the questions you ask. Formulating questions is an art and requires different techniques depending on how you’re using them. Use this guide to understand the different types of questions that can be applied to any research you do – from casual conversations to formal focus groups and online surveys.

Different questions for different purposes

There are different questions for different purposes. There are overall research questions, qualitative and quantitative questions, and open and closed questions.

Overall research questions

It helps to have a clear focus for your research by posing a single, overall research question. Formulating this question takes some thinking and it’s wise to discuss it with others to get feedback on your ideas before you lock it in.

An example of an overall research question is, How can we attract more young people to [organisation/activity name]?

Overall research questions are big, meaty questions that you want to explore, but they are too complicated to ask of your attendees. To design the questions you’ll actually ask people, consider breaking your overall research question down into areas of enquiry before designing qualitative and/or quantitative questions.

Examples of areas of enquiry:

  • Perceptions of [organisation’s/activity’s] brand
  • How attendees find out about events
  • Experience of the booking process.

Open and closed questions

Closed questions can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or a single piece of information. They usually begin with ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘do you’ or ‘are you’. For example, ‘Do you enjoy going to the theatre?’

Open questions require more detailed answers and invite the respondent to think a little bit more deeply. They usually begin with ‘how’ or ‘why’. Sometimes they aren’t even phrased as questions! Here are some examples: ‘Why did you choose to attend this particular art exhibition?’ or ‘Tell me about the last theatre production you saw.’

Qualitative research questions

Qualitative research questions can be asked in any research setting – a casual conversation, a formal focus group or a survey. Qualitative research can often help you to understand what’s going on and help you to write your quantitative research questions, including multiple choice options.

When asking qualitative questions, it’s useful to ask open questions, and read carefully or listen deeply to responses. Often, you can ask follow-up questions or ‘probes’ to get more detailed answers, e.g. ‘Tell me more about that’ or ‘Why do you think that is?’

Quantitative research questions

In surveys, question design is critical and subtle variations can lead to vastly different results.

If you want to analyse answers quantitatively (i.e. you want to know how many people share a characteristic), you need to structure an answer scale. Likert scales are most commonly used in attendee research. Here are some examples:

  • Very dissatisfied, Dissatisfied, Neutral, Satisfied, Very satisfied, N/A
  • Very unlikely, Unlikely, Neutral, Likely, Very Likely, N/A
  • Strongly disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, Strongly agree, N/A

For examples of survey questions using these scales, refer to the survey questionnaire template and question bank. A quick web search will provide you with more information about Likert scale. Most online survey tools will also have free, useful articles.

Things to watch out for

When designing questions, think carefully about what you want to know and what kind of detail you’re looking for. Watch out for loaded questions or inadvertently leading respondents to answer a particular way.

An example of a loaded question would be asking your attendees, ‘What did you love about our show?’. This question assumes that your attendees loved your show. Try asking ‘What did you think about the show?’, or dividing the question into two to ask for positive and constructive feedback, such as, ‘What was the best thing about our show?’ and ‘What could be improved?’

Take care to define any technical or ambiguous terms and to clarify the time period that you’re interested in.

A quick web search will provide you with more information about common question pitfalls.