How to design a questionnaire for needs assessments in humanitarian emergencies

Publication language
Date published
01 Jul 2016
Factsheets and summaries
Data collection tools

There is no shortage of questionnaires used during emergencies that are too long, overly complex or unable to generate useful responses. The art of developing an effective questionnaire is the topic of master degrees and doctorates. The questionnaire is a critical tool in humanitarian response and requires time, resources and a detailed understanding of the context, factors which are all in short supply during an emergency. This technical brief aims to support the design of questionnaires for use in humanitarian emergencies by providing a set of guiding principles and a step-by-step process. If many of the principles detailed are universal to the development of any type of questionnaire, most of the examples used in this brief are related to strategic needs assessments implemented at the community level rather than the household level, e.g. Multi Cluster Initial and Rapid Assessments.

Considering the complexities involved in developing a reliable data collection tool, we emphasize the need to develop the questionnaire and test it during the assessment preparedness phase. Dedicating time and resources during “peace time” goes a long way in avoiding common mistakes in questionnaire design.

The brief starts with an explanation of the main purpose of a questionnaire and the principles that should be followed to reach these objectives. Afterwards, the ten steps of questionnaire development are discussed. The brief concludes with sections on what to keep in mind specifically when designing a questionnaire and individual questions. It focuses on questionnaire design for interviewer-administered (as opposed to self-administered) surveys, as this is the most common approach used in humanitarian emergencies. However, Section two briefly touches upon the impact of different survey modes on questionnaire format and wording.

This brief focusses on how to gather the information required; it does not provide recommendations on what information should be collected. In addition, the design, roll-out and ultimately the success of an assessment involves much more than designing a questionnaire. It includes deciding the sampling strategy, arranging logistics, data processing, etc. This brief touches on these other components only as far as they are relevant to the design of questionnaires. For more information on the complete assessment process and which information to gather when, see The Good Enough Guide – Humanitarian Needs Assessment (2014) and the MIRA revision July 2015.