Research: Designing surveys

Last updated: Monday, July 10, 2017

We're going to look at two common research methods that pharmacists employ in practice. Firstly, the use of surveys (below), and then interview techniques.


Surveys: pitfalls

If your research involves a questionnaire, then it’s essential to get the content right. If you don’t, then your target audience won’t reply or you won’t get the information you need. Here are some common mistakes that people make when developing questionnaires:

  1. Making it too long or too complicated, which discourages people from completing it. Don’t get round this by saying it will only take 5 minutes, when it actually takes 20 minutes! 
  2. Phrasing questions or prompts badly so that they are ambiguous, unclear, or repetitive. 
  3. Asking questions that don’t apply to a significant proportion of the respondents. 
  4. Making insufficient effort to recruit people or to encourage them to reply (e.g. not identifying a target population and a means to reach them; not explaining why the survey is important). 
  5. Failing to pilot the survey so that the problems above, and any others, aren’t picked up. 

The first step is to determine precisely what you want to find out, and why. Your aims and objectives will help you here. Write out everything you’re hoping to discover. If it proves to be a very long list then prioritise them: what are the most important things you need to know from your respondents? Could the least important things be missed out to make your questionnaire shorter?

Choosing your questions 

There’s a temptation to include lots of ‘background’ questions about age, gender, socioeconomic group. How are you going to use this info? If there’s no obvious connection to your research, get rid of these questions. Focus on what you need to know. You have basically two types of question: opened or closed. Closed questions are more commonly used because they steer respondents to select from fixed choices. For example:

  • Which of the following has most impact on patient care:…? (Followed by a list to choose from)
  • Has this resource improved patient care? (You’re prompted to select ‘yes’ or ‘no’)

An open question allows the respondent to write their own answer. For example:

  • What are the biggest barriers to adherence that you've seen in patients with asthma? 
  • How can we make this website more useful to your practice? 

There’s no right or wrong approach. People often use a combination of the two types. Your decision will be based on what you want to find out, respondent motivation, method of administering the questionnaire, the topic covered, and so on. Each question type has advantages and disadvantages:


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