Designing better questionnaires: Questionnaire layout

In this, final, instalment to my five-post series on questionnaires, I’d like to share some tips on questionnaire production. I shall assume that you have already written out your questions, and I’ll therefore turn my attention to how you can put this content together in a coherent research instrument.

Incidentally, there is lots of excellent advice in the research methods literature on how to format a questionnaire (see, for instance Chapter 20 in Cohen, Manion and Morisson’s Research Methods in Education, or Dörnyei’s Questionnaires in Second Language Research).  So, in this post I shall try to avoid duplicating what is already commonplace; rather, I shall selectively focus on a few tips and tricks which I found particularly useful – some of which I had to learn the hard way.

Source: (c) Nick Piggott, CC BY-NC-ND


In order to answer your research questions, more data is always better. However, in my experience, any questionnaire that takes more than 30 minutes to answer will probably generate respondent fatigue, and should thus be avoided. Taking up more of the respondents’ time is also ethically questionable, unless respondents are invested in the topic, or you have provided a suitable incentive or compensation.

You can get an estimate of how many questions can be answered within the 30-minute timeframe by piloting the questionnaire. As a rule of thumb, 4-6 pages is a reasonable length for a questionnaire that mostly consists of closed-response factual questions. Of course, you will need to adjust this number, depending on the type of questions you ask, and factors such as the respondents’ age, reading comprehension skills etc.

If you need more data than can be accommodated in a 4-6 page questionnaire, it is a very bad idea to try to cram more items by using smaller fonts or margins. Such tricks will only make the questionnaire less reader-friendly, and respondents will likely be discouraged from completing it. Rather, you might have to consider administering a second survey to a different sample with similar demographic features.

Using booklets

Most questionnaires I’ve come across consist of several sheets of paper, stapled together at the top left corner, which is –I will concede – a fairly sensible design. Personally, I prefer creating A5-sized booklets, which look less intimidating, and offer a workable compromise between compactness and readability. You can easily produce such booklets by printing two pages side-by-side on each A4 sheet of paper, which you can then fold across the middle (Figure 1).

Questionnaire booklet
Figure 1. Example of a questionnaire booklet

I usually aim for an eight-page questionnaire (i.e., two sheets of A4, printed front and back). In addition to six pages of questions, which is my preferred length, this format allows for a front and back cover, which shield responses from prying eyes when the completed questionnaires are collected.

Your printer is likely to have a ‘print booklet’ setting, which you will find after clicking on Print>Properties and looking around. If not, you will have zoom manually (Figure 2), and to change the order in which your pages are printed, so that they appear correctly when you fold the printed sheets. For an eight-page booklet printed on two sheets of paper (front and back), the correct order is: 8 (back cover), 1 (front cover), 2, 7; 6, 3, 4, 5.

Screenshot showing how to select zooming
Figure 2. Zooming in manually

For a more elaborate twelve-page booklet, the correct printing order is: 12 (back cover), 1 (front cover), 2, 11; 10, 3, 4, 9; 8, 5, 6, 7. If you use this format, consider using pages 2 and 11 for recording consent and demographic information respectively. The first sheet of paper can then be detached from the substantive parts of the questionnaire, which you can process separately.


Moving to the actual content of the questionnaire, here are some more things to bear in mind:

Consent: it’s always a good idea to include a consent-affirming question in the questionnaire. While this may sound excessive (consent is implicit when one chooses to complete a questionnaire response), I believe that it helps to establish trust between respondents and the researcher.

Consent Affirming Question
Figure 3. Here’s an example of how to re-affirm consent.

Instructions:  Preface each questionnaire section with simple instructions. Many respondents are sophisticated enough to answer your questions on their own, but I am constantly surprised at how creatively some respondents re-imagine the question format. That said, try to keep instructions brief: long instructions take up valuable real estate in the questionnaire, and readers may be tempted to skip them if they look too complicated.

Numbering: It may seem intuitive to number your questionnaire items sequentially: DON’T. Rather, re-start numbering the items in every new section. This will help reinforce the impression that the questionnaire is not too long. However, you may find it helpful to have a master index for your own reference, where each questionnaire item is linked to your analytical codes.

Questionnaire index
Figure 4. Extract from a questionnaire index

Final production

My final set of tips is about the actual production of the questionnaire. When working on many different computers and word-processors, you may find that they process files in subtly different ways. This can mean that they will surreptitiously change the margins or fonts of your document, thus wrecking havoc with your carefully formatted questionnaire. Here are some tips that can help you maintain control over the format of your document.

Only format at the very end: During production, my documents are plain text, with occasional metacomments (e.g., ‘insert an image here’). I have found that by formatting the document after I have finalized the text, not only do I work more efficiently, but also the formatting is more consistent. Once I am happy with the overall look of the document, I save it as a .pdf file which prevents further modification.

Avoid uncommon fonts: I readily admit that I find fonts such as Arial and Times New Roman visually unappealing (and the less said about Comic Sans the better!), but there are two good reasons for them. First, many respondents might find unusual fonts , such as the ones shown in Figure 5, distracting or hard to read. Secondly, less common fonts might not be available at the computer from which you print your final document, and the replacement font could radically change the distribution of text across the document at the very last moment.

Questionnaire section with unusual fonts
Figure 5. Best avoid this!

If you find that unimaginative typography puts you off too much, you may want to embed the fonts you used in the document, but bear in mind that this will substantially increase the size of the file.


This post concludes the series of posts on questionnaire design. Previous posts, which you may find useful, include:

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