Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate Hands-on guide to questionnaire research

Administering, analysing, and reporting your questionnaire

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 03 June 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:1372

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. Petra M Boynton, lecturer in health services research (
  1. 1Department of Primary Care and Population Sciences, University College London, London N19 5LW
  • Accepted 17 March 2004

Understanding your study group is key to getting a good response to a questionnaire; dealing with the resulting mass of data is another challenge

The first step in producing good questionnaire research is getting the right questionnaire.1 However, even the best questionnaire will not get adequate results if it is not used properly. This article outlines how to pilot your questionnaire, distribute and administer it; and get it returned, analysed, and written up for publication. It is intended to supplement published guidance on questionnaire research, three quarters of which focuses on content and design.2


Questionnaires tend to fail because participants don't understand them, can't complete them, get bored or offended by them, or dislike how they look. Although friends and colleagues can help check spelling, grammar, and layout, they cannot reliably predict the emotional reactions or comprehension difficulties of other groups. Whether you have constructed your own questionnaire or are using an existing instrument, always pilot it on participants who are representative of your definitive sample. You need to build in protected time for this phase and get approval from an ethics committee.3

During piloting, take detailed notes on how participants react to both the general format of your instrument and the specific questions. How long do people take to complete it? Do any questions need to be repeated or explained? How do participants indicate that they have arrived at an answer? Do they show confusion or surprise at a particular response—if so, why? Short, abrupt questions may unintentionally provoke short, abrupt answers. Piloting will provide a guide for rephrasing questions to invite a richer response (box 1).

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Box 1: Patient preference is preferable

I worked on a sexual health study where we initially planned to present the questionnaire on a computer, since we had read people were supposedly more comfortable “talking” to …

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