Questionnaire writers are often tempted to use vague words and phrases that, although commonly used in conversation, do not have precise meanings.
Here is a question I saw in a survey:
Do you regularly read the newspaper?
__ Yes
__ No
The problem with this question is that what regularly means is unclear to many respondents. Does it mean every day, or most days? In a sense, this question requires respondents to do two things—assess how often they read the newspaper, and decide whether that amount meets the criteria of “regularly.”
Here is another question with a vague term:
Do you generally exercise in the morning?
__ Yes
__ No
What does it mean to generally exercise? If you want to know how many times people exercise in the morning, specify a time frame. Ask how many times in the past 7 days they have exercised in the morning. You would also need to define what you mean by “exercise.”
Here is a question in a survey given to psychiatrists:
Thinking of your typical depression patients, for what percentage do you prescribe Paroxetine?
Psychiatrists do not know what you mean by a“typical” depression patient. The question would probably stump most respondents, and their answers would represent different interpretations of the term typical.
Instead of using vague terms and phrases, use these guidelines described in my book:
1. Use the vocabulary of respondents.
2. Use precise words and phrases.
3. State time frames in which people can recall the information you need.