The Questionnaire as Conversation: Time for a Paradigm Shift, or at Least a Paradigm Nudge?

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Ergonomics in Design


Questionnaires are ubiquitous. After making purchases at brick-and-mortar stores or eating at a restaurant, we are invited to complete a survey and earn extra points or a discount on our next purchase. After making purchases on the Internet, we receive a survey regarding our satisfaction with the product, or our interaction with the Web site, or the accuracy and speed of delivery of the order. Questions pop up on our browsers, and we are immediately rewarded by seeing how our responses compare with those of other respondents. Although these questionnaires vary considerably in quality, value, and scientific merit, the findings are often treated equally. In addition, the data are often collected from an opt-in, nonrandom sample of convenience, which may or may not be representative of the population of interest. In empirical studies, questionnaires and surveys are the most commonly used research tool in the areas of public opinion, psychology, sociology, and political science (Saris & Gallhofer, 2007). Their findings apply equally to the field of human factors/ ergonomics (HF/E).

A cursory analysis of the number of hits on the words questionnaire and survey in the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society between 2009 and 2014 showed that about one third of the articles contained either word. Despite HF/E’s heavy use of questionnaires and surveys, few HF/E professionals have received any formal training in their design and use.

The purpose of this article is to describe the nature of questionnaires/ surveys and to encourage questionnaire designers to consider the complexity of their design task. In the interest of simplicity, we have used the terms questionnaire and survey interchangeably. In this article, we consider questionnaires as conversations and offer suggestions for improving questionnaire construction. We place an emphasis on the importance of considering the respondent’s mental model.

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Human Factors and Ergonomics Society