Are You Using a Questionnaire or Survey to Collect Data?

April 13, 2015

There is much confusion around the terms survey and questionnaire.  They are often used interchangeably probably because people think they are synonymous.

So let me clarify.

There are 2 distinctions that separate a questionnaire from a survey.

  1. A questionnaire is a set of written questions used for collecting information.
  2. A questionnaire does not use aggregate data for statistical analysis.

A questionnaire is a series of questions used for gathering information that is used to benefit a single individual. While more than one individual might complete the questionnaire, the responses are not aggregated for analysis.

A survey, on the other hand, is the process of gathering information for statistical analysis to benefit a group of individuals. The responses are aggregated to draw a conclusion.

Put another way, a survey is the process of collecting and analyzing the data, where the questionnaire is the set of questions used to gather the information.

Why the Confusion?

As online surveys and DIY research have evolved so has the meaning of a questionnaire.

Back in the day (before internet), completing a questionnaire was a matter of filling out a paper form. It stood alone.

If the data was going to be used for research, the data was manually manipulated so that it could be summarized. The analysis was a completely separate process.

Online survey tools have combined the process of gathering and analyzing the data. A single tool now does both, making it quick, easy, and affordable.

The Evolution of The Questionnaire

I checked online dictionaries and Wikipedia to see what they had to say about questionnaires and surveys. Unfortunately, their definition adds to the confusion.

Merriam Dictionary defines Questionnaire as:

1.  a set of questions for obtaining statistically useful or personal information from individuals

2.  a written or printed questionnaire often with spaces for answers

3.  a survey made by the use of a questionnaire

Wikipedia briefly makes this distinction:

“A questionnaire is a research instrument consisting of a series of questions and other prompts for the purpose of gathering information from respondents. Although they are often designed for statistical analysis of the responses, this is not always the case.”

Notice that these definitions don’t make the distinction as to whether or not the data is aggregated or not?

Confusing, right? Based on these definitions it sounds like a questionnaire is a survey.

So I grabbed an older dictionary off my shelf. Here is how it describes a questionnaire and survey:

Webster’s New World Compact School and Office Dictionary (4th Edition):

Questionnaire – n. a written or printed set of questions used in gathering information from people.

Survey – a detailed study as by gathering information and analyzing it.

This older definition is simple but makes a clear distinction that a questionnaire is a set questions while a survey is the process of analyzing it.

Comparing the old definition against the new definitions tells me that the term ‘questionnaire’ has evolved with the internet.

Common Characteristics of Questionnaires and Surveys

The key difference is that questionnaires can stand alone such as when used for job applications, loan applications, patient history forms, etc.

The purpose of these questionnaires is not for research or studies, but to collect information to assist an individual or organization. In these cases, the responses are not aggregated for analysis.

When questionnaires are used to research or evaluate a group, then the questionnaire becomes a study or survey. In these cases, the responses are aggregated and summarized to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

So, questionnaires and surveys both use a series of questions to gather information, but it is the intention of the data gathered that distinguishes them.

Benefits of Using an Online Questionnaire or Surveys

Regardless of whether you are crafting questions for a questionnaire or a survey, taking your questions online has 3 main benefits over paper:

  1. Economical: Online questionnaires and surveys are a much faster and cheaper way to collect data than conducting an interview or printing a hard copy.
  2. Standardized Questions: Unifying questions makes it easier to compare results.
  3. Tabulated Answer: Enclosed answer options makes it easier to tabulate results.

Questionnaires Used for Surveys

So, that questionnaire you recently completed? The data will be used to assist you.

But don’t be surprised if the data is also used for other purposes.

Because online questionnaire tools store the data all in one place, it is easy to aggregate it for marketing purposes. Often, organizations use this data to determine who their primary audience is.

Questionnaire or Survey – Who Cares?

I am not a word purist, but I do believe that we should be clear in our intentions. Letting respondents know why you need their information and how it will be used, builds trust and will help you collect higher quality data.

If the data collected will not be aggregated and is solely to benefit the respondent, then please use the term questionnaire. But if you’re gathering information for analytical purposes, let your respondents know that you are conducting a survey.

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