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My love/hate relationship with question numbers

February 22, 2019

The other day I found myself suggesting that a client “take the question numbers out” from a feedback form that they were drafting.  As I said it, it felt like a strange thing to suggest.  I mean, questionnaires include questions so questions should be labelled and numbered as such, right?

I realised I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with question numbers!

When I write questionnaires I use quite an iterative approach, trying out different wording and often swapping the order about until it feels right.  So if I number things from the beginning I’m either wasting my time constantly re-numbering or I end up with a questionnaire with a bizarre numbering system that looks like this:

Q1a Do you like kittens?

Q1b Do you like baby anteaters?

Q1c Do you like baby guinea pigs?

Q2 Do you like puppies?

Q3 Do you like baby humans?

So during this part of the process question numbers are a bit of a liability and until I’m sure of the order, I don’t bother with question numbers at all.  So my first draft of any questionnaire would look a bit like this:

Q Do you like kittens?

Q Do you like baby anteaters?

Q Do you like baby guinea pigs?

Q Do you like puppies?

Q Do you like baby humans?

Once I’m happy with the order, I retrospectively fill the numbers in.

Q1 Do you like kittens?

Q2 Do you like baby anteaters?

Q3 Do you like baby guinea pigs?

Q4 Do you like puppies?

Q5 Do you like baby humans?

Lovely.  But then when I’m putting the thing out to the public I take the numbers out again!

So if I’m preparing a pen-and-paper questionnaire I’d just write:

Do you like kittens?

Do you like baby anteaters?

Do you like baby guinea pigs?

Do you like puppies?

Do you like baby humans?

And if I was setting up a survey online I’d actively go into the deepest darkest settings and turn off the question numbering.

Why?  I want the questionnaire to look as straightforward and easy and welcoming as possible.  Yes, I put a status bar on so they can see how far the survey they’ve got (and with pen-and-paper they can judge that simply by looking) but I don’t think question numbering adds anything useful for the respondent.  I mean, you can tell it is a question because it has a question mark after it.  There’s no need to label it any further.  And why would a respondent care if Do you like baby humans? is Q5?  That means nothing to them.  Actually I think question numbers can make the whole think look over-formal, and that can be intimidating.

Internally, on the other hand, question numbers can be quite helpful so that is why I do keep them in for my working documents.  Basically if you want to discuss a questionnaire with someone else it is much quicker, easier and more precise to do this by question number:

  • When you are finalising the questionnaire your client can say ‘typo at Q10’ or ‘can we put Q6 after Q12?’
  • When you are speccing analysis you can ask your analyst to crosstabulate Q5 by Q19
  • When you are preparing a chart or referring to some data in a report it is good practice to say where the data came from, so adding a label such as Q21 indicates where the question wording can be found and gives an idea whereabouts it came in the questionnaire order

We used question numbers a lot when I worked at research agencies, because we were typically writing huge long questionnaires and working with correspondingly huge fat data sets, whilst collaborating in large interdisciplinary teams.

But as a sole trader… question numbers… meh.

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