Little Questions are the Key to Getting BIG Data by Alana Dunoff

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

Big DataEveryone is talking about BIG DATA these days –how and why to use it, where it comes from and who is collecting it.

But behind big data there are little questions that must be asked in just the right way to ensure that the date you are collecting is the data you want to be collecting.
Asking questions is something we do every day. In FM, we ask questions to understand customer satisfaction, as a way of gaining feedback and for measuring staff and vendor performance.

How we ask questions, the words we use, can affect the quality of the information we receive. If you utilize questions to obtain information then the question you should asking yourself is, “Are my questions good questions?

Crafting questions is a science and an art. Over the years, I have found the need to hone my own skills at developing good questions. Whether it is writing questions for a customer satisfaction survey or collecting data to be utilized for a metric or KPI, the ability to write a good question becomes paramount to the answers received.

Here are 3 Tips for crafting better survey questions:

Start with the right keyword

Back in grammar school we learned that to ask a question you start a sentence with key words such as: Why, What, When, Who and How. But when you are writing a question these key words are not created equally. The word you choose can change how the question is answered.
For example, if you were assessing user satisfaction of a completed work order you could one little question in a multitude of ways:

  • Were you satisfied with the work completed? This could be answered with a simple Yes or No
  • How satisfied are you with the work completed? This could be answered with a scale such as Dissatisfied, Somewhat Satisfied, Satisfied or Very Satisfied
  • Please tell us how we did on your completed work? This could be answered with a rating scale as noted above or left as an open ended question allowing the respondent to write in their opinion.

Each of these questions gets the user thinking just a bit differently which can impact their response. And while it might be easier to ask all yes or no questions, using a scaled response provides the respondent with greater flexibility in answers and you with more depth of information. There is a different between satisfied and very satisfied. Open ended questions, like the 3rd example, are helpful for anecdotal stories or letting people vent, but keep these to a minimum since they are hard to analyze and to pull consistent data from.

Watch out for leading questions

Ever watch a TV court drama when the lawyer says, “Your honor that is a leading question”. It is very tempting to give people a hint as to how we really hope they will answer the question, but we need to not bias the respondents. Take a look at these 2 questions as an example:

  1. Do you find your open office environment to be noisy?
  2. How would describe the acoustics in your open office environment?

Question #1 puts the idea into the respondents head that the space is noisy, when in fact the noise level may not have been a particular issue or concern. This question, with its negative tone, plants the idea that perhaps it is noisy which could influence the answer. If you are not sure whether your questions are leading, ask a few people to review your questions before sending them out.

Use simple rating scales.

If you have taken any surveys recently there is a trend toward asking you to rate your opinion on a scale of 1 to 10. A 10 point scale is impossible to know if you are getting consistent information from person to person. What is the difference between ‘7’ or ‘8’ on a 10 point scale? Depending on the person an 8 could be ‘quite good’ or ‘just good’. How can you know? These large scales provide far too many variables to know what someone is thinking making the data unreliable.

A better option is a simple 4 scale with clear wording for each corresponding number:

1 2 3 4 5
Poor Fair Good Very Good NA

It is also important to have a ‘not applicable’ option (as #5) so that respondents who don’t have an opinion don’t skew your data. Five point scales are also popular, however with a 5 point scales there is tendency for someone to play the Switzerland card and pick neutral. I prefer to encourage people to either have an opinion or opt out. Neutral often means they don’t care one way or the other.

Whether it is big data or just medium data, data is the cornerstone for the critical decisions we make daily in our organizations. Take some time to review the questions you are asking- poorly written questions can lead to bad information. Crafting good questions are the building blocks for obtaining smart, reliable and valid data.


Alana Dunoff, FMP, IFMA Fellow

Alana Dunoff

Alana F. Dunoff  has over 22 years’ experience as a strategic facility planner.

She is President of AFD Facility Planning, a consulting firm offering a full array of facility planning services and dedicated to helping FM’s achieve their goals with smart actionable information.

Alana is also an adjunct professor currently teaching at Temple University in their Facility Management Bachelor of Science program. She is also an IFMA Qualified Instructor. Alana has had the pleasure of sharing and presenting ideas at numerous IFMA WWP, Fusion and FMCC webinars over the years as well at as other Universities, Associations and Companies.

Alana is an active IFMA member, having served as a Director on the Board of Directors of IFMA in 2003-2005 and also served as President of the local Philadelphia Chapter of IFMA in 2001. In 2013 she was honored as IFMA’s Distinguished Member of the Year and in 2014 she became an IFMA Fellow. She is currently the chair of the FM Educators special interest group. She has a clear passion for FM education.

Alana earned her B.S. in Environmental Psychology from Boston University and her M.S. in Facility Planning and Management from Cornell University.

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One response to “Little Questions are the Key to Getting BIG Data by Alana Dunoff

  1. David Reynolds says:

    Eloquent guidance that reflects knowledge gained over decades of use of surveys. Thanks!

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