Ambiguous Questions: What They Are And Why You Should Avoid Them

Philip Cleave
March 8, 2024
Pensive man wondering how best to answer a survey question

Designing your survey may seem enough, but without due care, there are a number of common pitfalls that can harm the accuracy and reliability of your survey results.

One of the most common difficulties is ambiguous questions. This can easily arise if you don't give adequate thought to how your respondents might interpret your survey questions, and therefore it needs to be avoided at all costs.

It can take a bit of extra time, patience and a certain standard of writing skills to prevent ambiguous questions from inadvertently appearing in your survey. However, to help get you up to speed with this, we’ve provided you with a quick guide to ambiguous questions and how to avoid them.

What is an ambiguous question?

When we refer to an ambiguous question, we’re essentially talking about a question where there is no specific query.

An ambiguous question could also be referred to one that is confusing. A question that a respondent will struggle to answer, not because they’re a poor respondent, but because it’s a bad question.

More generally, an ambiguous question is too broad and leaves too much room for interpretation by the respondent.

Examples of ambiguous questions

When it comes to examples of ambiguous questions, they can typically include a number of characteristics such as:

  • Vagueness
  • Not clearly defining the subject
  • More than one meaning
  • Asking for several responses

This can result in survey questions such as following, where we’ve also included reasons for why they’re not good questions.

Did you see the football match last weekend?

This is really vague. We don’t know what match or teams this is referring to, or whether it is talking about a match that was watched live or on the TV.

Have you bought anything in the past two months?

Not only is this vague, but it’s a bit of a pointless question too, as most people will have bought something in the past week, let alone two months. To make it more useful, it needs to provide more clarity, in terms of referring to a particular product, location of purchase or method of payment used.

Can you rate the speed and quality of our customer service?

Rather than a problem with vagueness, this question is ambiguous because it’s asking the respondent to rate two things in one question, which is not a helpful thing to do. This is because while a respondent may feel that their issue was dealt with quickly, they may think the quality of that service was poor, and vice versa.

Asking respondents to answer two things in a single question is confusing for them, making it difficult for them to answer the question effectively and leading to inaccurate responses.

Why you should avoid ambiguous questions

One of the biggest problems with ambiguous questions is that the responses you get back will be equally ambiguous, making them of little value to you. The trouble with this, is that this can not only harm the quality of your survey, but the business decisions that are taken off the back of them.

Put simply, ambiguous questions lead to information of little or no value. And as information is pivotal to your decision making, you’ll be putting your brand at a disadvantage if you fail to remove these types of questions.

How to avoid ambiguous questions

Having got up to speed on ambiguous questions and seen some example questions, you’ll want to do as much as you can to avoid them.

Well, here’s some pointers to help you with that.

Have some objectives in place

If you’re not fully clear about what you’re asking your respondents, then your respondents definitely won’t know how to answer your questions.

Consequently, you need to set some objectives for your survey, before you even begin thinking about your survey design. That way having those objectives in mind when you’re creating your questions, is more likely to result in questions that are specific and of relevance to what you’re actually trying to find out.

Be specific

Ambiguity is typically caused by being too broad with your questions. So, to avoid that you’ll need to be more specific.

Here’s a few tips to help with that:

  • Avoid long, wordy questions that lose the interest of your respondents
  • Don’t use vague words
  • Always specify the context of your question
  • Avoid double negatives at all costs

In addition, as much as you may feel that using jargon, abbreviations and acronyms will help to keep your questions short and specific, don’t use them. This is because many of your respondents won’t be familiar with that jargon, so you’ll just risk confusing them if you use them.

Split your questions up into multiple parts

One of the biggest failings of ambiguous questions is that they typically ask for too much information in too little space. For example, ‘Did you enjoy the product?

Such an ambiguous question could be inadvertently asked to find out various aspects of a product, rather than breaking it down into several parts.

By contrast, if you wanted to get respondents’ opinions about a new flavor of milkshake you were thinking of introducing, you might be better off breaking down your question into several smaller questions, such as the following:

What did you think about the color of the product?

What did you think about the texture of the product?

What did you think about the flavor of the product?

What did you think about the smell of the product?

Test your survey

Often, it’s harder to spot ambiguity in your questions, when you’re directly involved with designing your survey. Therefore, it can help to test your survey questions with some other people, before you formally launch it.

Think about enlisting some of your colleagues, or even your friends who aren’t familiar with the survey. This can be useful, because if your colleagues and your friends give different types of responses to the same questions, or there are some unexpected responses, it should be a red flag that need to review your questions. In addition, this also applies if you find many respondents to be struggling with your questions.

Concluding thoughts

We hope you enjoyed reading this blog, and if you weren’t already, you’re now much better informed about the issue of ambiguous questions.

The most important thing to consider with this issue is to take time with your survey design. Remember the experience of your respondents, is the most crucial aspect. And they should be able to read and interpret all your questions properly, if they’re to answer them in the right way.

If you can do that, you’ll see that the quality of your survey responses improves and what you’re able to do with that insight as result.

Great insight begins with the right survey tools

Removing ambiguous questions from your survey can make a significant difference to the quality of your survey results. However, you still need to be using the right survey tools, as that is the foundation of everything you need to do in terms of survey creation, distribution, analysis and reporting.

Find out more