Survey vs Questionnaire: Key Differences and Common Mistakes

Sara Abadi

, Business

What’s the difference between a survey and a questionnaire?

Still, scratching your head? You’re not the only one. There are market research professionals who would be doing the same.

In fact, many use the words interchangeably; but there is a key difference.

A questionnaire is just about any list of questions you have whereas a survey is much more complex. It involves everything from sending out a set of survey questions, collating the answers, to analyzing these for patterns.

Survey vs Questionnaire: The Big Difference

Many use the words survey and questionnaire when asking for the same thing. To make matters worse, sometimes people just ask for a ‘survey questionnaire’. So you will be forgiven in thinking that there is no big difference.

But let’s break it down. Here’s an overview to finally lay the eternal survey vs questionnaire debate to rest:


While every survey consists of a questionnaire, that’s not all a questionnaire is used for. In fact, a questionnaire is usually limited in terms of participants, purpose, and length with the goal of collecting just one data aspect.

Take, for example, a form you fill at the beginning of a job interview, or even perhaps a questionnaire asking about your topic preferences for an upcoming conference.

Both are different examples of a questionnaire. While the first one is limited to the individual to see if their understanding matches the job profile, the second is limited in terms of scope.

Both are looking to collect a rather limited dataset without the aim of analyzing it further.


A survey begins with a hypothesis – the key question you wish to answer. It will be sent out to a wider audience and will consist of nuanced questions. The purpose here is never limited to individuals, but to answer larger questions, spot trends, and identify patterns.

For example, you can survey ‘how would you rate our customer service, and why?’.

In order to get an accurate answer, the survey needs as much participation as possible.

These answers are then analyzed with the help of survey tools and analytics to understand customer perception. The analysis can help with identifying underlying problems that can be improved.

Hence, while surveys all use questionnaires, survey questions are often different from what you would find in a questionnaire since these are created keeping the eventual analytics in mind.

The Designing Difference between a Survey vs Questionnaire

The differences between a survey and a questionnaire don’t just end with their purpose. In fact, it is this that leads to a stark difference in their design as well.

When it comes to a questionnaire, you don’t need to worry about analytics. Since your main purpose is to collect data from a limited set of people and examine this directly, you can have more direct questions.

Depending on the purpose, questionnaires are often short and ask for limited information.

On the other hand, if you’re working on a survey, it needs to be designed carefully.

In fact, survey design is one of the most crucial parts of creating the document since your main aim is to keep your audience engaged.

Instead, survey questions see a higher use of question types that can be more easily analyzed to understand underlying patterns amongst the surveyed population.

Common Mistakes

Now that we have established that surveys and questionnaires are definitely not the same things, let’s dive into the common mistakes that are made in both.

After all, in the Venn Diagram of things, they both most certainly see a sizable overlap. So whether you’re designing a survey or a questionnaire, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Open-Ended Questions

While open-ended questions can be extremely informative, including a few too many of them can be a problem.

For one, open-ended questions force your participants to think, and too many of them will deter them from doing just that, reducing the quality of responses.

Moreover, when it comes to surveys, having too many such questions can often become a hurdle when it comes to analyzing the information!

2. Asking Convoluted Questions

Whether you’re designing a survey or a questionnaire, you don’t want participants misunderstanding the meaning of your question itself.

This could lead to incorrect answers, destroying the relevance of the results altogether.

As a simple rule of thumb, when it comes to questions, keep an eye out for:

  • Leading Questions
    Example: ‘Do you prefer Facebook over all other social media platforms?’

    That’s a leading question and primes the audience to say yes or no. Instead, try:

    ‘Which is your most preferred social media platform’ and give audience options to select from. This may lead them to think, and perhaps they’ll decide that Instagram is what they most like.

  • Double-Barreled Questions
    Example: ‘Do you like cooking and dancing?’

    If the answer to this is a yes or no option, then you’re in trouble. Because what if some people only prefer cooking while others only prefer dancing?

    A better option would be to divide the question into two, with one asking if your participants like cooking and the other asking if they like dancing.

To ensure that your questions are clear, simple, and direct, run them past someone with an objective eye. If they ask you for clarity on a question – change it.

3. Too Many Questions, Too Little Time

Whether it’s a survey or a questionnaire, participants don’t usually spend too long on it.

In fact, the more questions there are, the higher is the abandonment rate. So if you’re looking for the most participation, perhaps re-look at how many questions you are asking.

Use only the questions you absolutely need.

In addition, on average participants are willing to spend 10 minutes on a survey or questionnaire. So if you’re looking for thoughtful answers, giving fewer questions would be key.

This would ensure that their attention doesn’t get divided amongst more questions and instead gives them a chance to provide more thought out answers.

4. Unclear Response Choices

As participants, one of the most frustrating experiences is when you know the answer and yet the response choices are unclear.

For example, when asking participants for how long they have pursued a particular hobby, the following response choices are definitely not recommended:

– Less than a year
– 1-2 years
– 2-3 years

The confusion can be easily avoided by just being clear and not offering overlapping choices.

5. Being Vague

While open-ended questions can yield a variety of insightful information, a vague question can have exactly the opposite effect.

In fact, oftentimes a participant may not know how to respond and the result – bad data.

For example:
How would you recommend we improve our service?

The answers received here can vary drastically. ‘Improved’ can mean a host of things; it covers the scope of how quick the service was to the ease of booking and reservations.

If you’re looking for something in particular, it would be a better idea to rephrase the question and be more direct.

6. Be Globally Aware

The world is becoming smaller, and as a consequence, it also means that researchers are undertaking global studies and companies are distributing questionnaires across their branches in different countries.

In order to get good responses and avoid offending people, you need to remain culturally aware at all times.

Take the help of local resources to ensure that this is the case before sending out generic surveys or questionnaires.

For example:
Asking people what they would prefer in an upcoming event menu might sound like a good idea, but using a sample survey or questionnaire with pre-set choices won’t be. After all, certain fruits aren’t available world-over, while some are a local staple and would be expected.

Your questionnaire needs to be relevant to your audience.

7. Not Going Mobile-Friendly

If you’re sending out a questionnaire or a survey, the best way to increase responses is with a digital option.

After all, when you’re asking people to fill out the information on their time, going digital just makes it a lot easier for both of you.

It allows the audience to access and answer the questions from wherever they are, while it enables you to not only have all your data in one place but also easily analyze the responses without human error (after all, it’s digital!)

However, one of the key mistakes we often see is not going mobile-friendly.

The entire world is on their phone. If you’re reaching out to people to complete the survey on their time, chances are, they’ll be accessing it from their mobile.

So when your survey or questionnaire isn’t mobile-friendly, this becomes quite annoying to do.

In fact, the more difficult an interface is to operate, the more your abandonment rate will increase.

On the other hand, the easier your survey or questionnaire is, the more engaging it will be. This ensures an increase in authentic and reliable responses, giving you the required insights.

Final Thoughts

Surveys and questionnaires both serve a key purpose in gathering information and understanding your audience. So select one depending on your objective, and ensure that it is designed while keeping all the key mistakes in mind will help you get the most genuine responses.

Moreover, now that you know the difference, you know just which one you’ll need. This in turn can help improve transparency as you inform participants how their data will be used.

To sum it up, if the data collected is going to be analyzed, let participants know that they are a part of a survey. However, if the data isn’t going to be aggregated, then the ‘questionnaire’ is apt.

While this may not look like much of a difference, using the right words can fuel trust and build your reliability in the long run, and who wouldn’t want that?