Sometimes Two Isn’t Better Than One: How to Avoid Doubled-Barreled Questions in Surveys

November 7, 2022 Jordan Boege, MPP

How to avoid double-barreled questions in surveys

Survey data is often a significant part of economic development. It is a time- and cost-effective way to solicit feedback from more of the community than is possible through interviews or focus groups. At first glance, developing a survey seems pretty straightforward. Just ask people questions! As with most things, however, the devil is often in the details. One of the most common survey design errors involves asking double-barreled questions.

What is a Double-Barreled Question?

A question becomes “double-barreled” when you ask two different things within the same question. For instance, a housing development survey might ask:

“Should our community change zoning regulations to promote density and invest more money into affordable housing?”

This phrasing makes analysis challenging because this question will only capture those who want both a change in zoning regulations AND more investment in affordable housing. It will not capture respondents who favor either zoning changes OR investment into affordable housing but not the other — the two are impossible to separate based on the wording of that question.

A better construction would be to either split the question into two questions or create a matrix/multiple choice question that allows respondents to choose individual items they would support from a list of options, like so:

Which of the following do you support?

  • Zoning changes that promote density
  • Community investment in affordable housing
  • Reduced parking requirements for apartment buildings
  • Incentives to developers to build low-income housing

Structuring questions in this way makes analysis more straightforward by making each piece of data discrete. Making questions as clear as possible is important for getting the best data from your survey — realizing you spent time and effort on a survey question that doesn’t actually tell you anything meaningful is quite frustrating!

How to Avoid Double-Barreled Questions

Start at the end

A great way to review survey questions is to think through how your data will be presented and ask yourself what you will get out of each question at the end of the survey. A common motivation for double-barreled questions is the desire to gather as much data as possible from a survey that doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to complete. While that is not a bad idea in a vacuum, the quality of data matters more than the quantity. It is important to focus most directly on what you need to learn from the survey, and not to collect data purely for the sake of collecting information.

Add more eyeballs

Have others review your survey draft before it goes out. A fresh perspective can help catch things you may miss. Asking 2-5 people to take a practice run of your survey — including those who are unfamiliar with your project, as many who take surveys are — can help identify parts of the survey that are confusing.

Don’t shoot holes in your survey. Avoid double-barreled questions! If you’re interested in more ways to make your surveys better, check out our September article, Five Tips for Creating Surveys People Might Actually Want to Take.

Do you have an economic development project or plan that will require community and/or stakeholder engagement? Camoin Associates can help! We use community and stakeholder surveys to inform and shape a lot of the work we do for our clients. Learn more about our services.