Lock, Stock and Double-Barreled Questions

/ 9 min read
Eliza Frakes

It's nearly 5 o'clock on a Friday. You're wrapping up a feedback survey for a client that could do with a few edits and another look through, but you're really keen to go home, pop open a bottle of Shiraz and start binging Queer Eye.

Rather than wait until Monday, you decide to add a few double-barrel questions to your survey, figuring you'll be able to hit multiple birds with one stone, and no one will even notice. No harm, no foul, right?

Er, not so much. Double-barreled questions are a common survey mistake, and a major cause of skewed (see: useless) survey data. They negatively impact both the respondent experience and the final results of your survey.

In this article we'll:

  • Define what a double-barreled questions are
  • Share real-world examples
  • Outline reasons why you need to avoid double-barreled questions and;
  • Provide strategies to combat double-barreled questions in your surveys.

Let's get to it.

What is a double-barreled question?

A double-barreled question, also known as a double-ended or double-direct question depending on the room you're in, is a question that asks two distinct questions, but only allows for one answer.

While they're named after a double-barreled shotgun, double-barreled questions are really more like Russian nesting dolls, because they hide two questions in one.

This is where the problem occurs. Since respondents are asked to provide feedback on two different issues within a single question they can't answer either properly.

Here are a few examples you'll commonly see sprinkled throughout surveys:

  • How satisfied are you with your purchase and customer service experience?
  • How would you rate your shopping and checkout experience?
  • Would you buy this product again or recommend it to a friend?

See the problem? While the questions are related, they touch on distinctly different parts of the issue that require unique answers—yet respondents can't possible give answers to both questions with a single response (and if they do, you won't be able to accurately examine their answer.)

Double-barrel questions are also influenced by the question type you use. Let's use the 'would you buy this product again or recommend it to a friend?' question as an example.

If you were to ask this as an open feedback question (where respondents type their response into a text box) customer would have room to explain their answer. They might say something like: I liked the product, but wouldn't recommend it because I found a better solution at another store.

Not so bad. But if you asked this as a "Yes or No" question, or even on a scale, that customer wouldn't have any way to express the nuances of their answer. As neither yes or no—or a numerical rating is completely true—their answer is stripped of its meaning.

Therein lies the rub, as they say. When survey creators pigeonhole respondents into trying to answer two questions with a single answer, you make it impossible for them to answer and for you to extrapolate any meaningful data.

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What is an example of a double-barreled question in the real world?

Double-barreled questions aren't great in surveys. But they're not always bad. To use an example from left-field, it's kind of like bacteria—we all know there's good bacteria, but we'd be lying if we said we don't think of the icky stuff first.

To better understand these fickle compound questions, let's take a look at the different contexts in which double-barreled questions appear: in day-to-day conversation, in surveys, and in the court of law, where being ambiguous and misleading can be an asset.

1. Double-barreled questions in everyday life

Double barreled questions are commonplace in conversation. This is because people have a more nuanced understanding of formal logic in person, and, of course, because conversation is the open feedback question of life (can we get that embroidered on a pillow?)

Let’s say you’re grabbing a coffee with a friend for the first time in a while. You might say something like "how are Jacob and the kids?", a mix of 'how is Jacob?' and 'how are the kids?'.

This is a double-barreled question. But your friend wouldn't have any trouble responding to you as they sip their latte. They could say "Jacob's decided to join the circus, but the kids are getting straight A’s," or a give an infinite number of other thoughtful responses.

Why? because they've got a whole array of words at their disposal. People don't have this luxury in a survey, where such questions cause confusion, and restrict respondents from giving proper answers..

2. Double-barreled questions in surveys

Although they aren’t meant to be there, like ants in your kitchen cupboard, double- barreled questions often find their way into surveys. Here’s an example of a compound question you might see a teacher ask their class in a questionnaire:

Now, let’s say you’re one of the students in the class, and you excel at reading, but struggle with writing. How are you supposed to answer? You couldn’t, because, like all double-barreled questions, it presents an informal fallacy—which is just a fancy way to say it doesn't make any sense.

3. Double-barreled questions in court

Perhaps the only place a double-barreled question belongs is in a courthouse. For those of us without a law degree, you've probably heard some legal chatter while watching your favourite courthouse drama or reading a battered John Grisham novel.

Picture it: the hotshot lawyer standing in the middle of a sweltering room in the American South; tie undone; the odds stacked against him. During cross-examination he might say something like, "were you aware that they were using an alternate I.D. and tampering with evidence at the time?"

Often, in these situations, our hero lawyer is using the double-barreled question for the precise reason you shouldn't use it in your surveys—because it presents an informal fallacy.

In other words, they're being intentionally tricky, in the hope that the defendant will say yes or no, and inadvertently fess up to something they may not mean.

How do you avoid double-barreled questions?

Most of the time, double-barreled questions pop up in surveys by accident. Folks don't even notice the box they're confining respondents to, or the potential impact it'll have when it comes to analysing their responses.

Luckily, double-barreled questions are fairly easy to spot and remedy. Here are a few tricks you can use to identify them, and ideally, avoid them in the first place.

1. Break up your questions

When you find a double-barreled question in your form, the simplest way to fix it is to break it up into separate questions. Take the customer service example from earlier:

It’s not possible to answer the question with a single response, because it’s not a single question. You can say how satisfied you were with the product, or you can say how satisfied you were with the customer service, but you can’t say both at once.

When you spot compound questions like this, simply split them up into two clear questions, like so:

  • Were you satisfied with your purchase?
  • Were you satisfied with our customer service experience?

When you phrase the questions like this, your customers are able to focus on each question individually, and answer honestly. Plus, you can keep these questions as yes or no or scaled answer options, which are quicker and less tedious to fill out.

2. Ask one question at a time

Struggling to break down your questions into single topics? One way to help guide you through the process is by tossing aside the traditional full-page survey, and opting for a one-question-at-a-time experience. This also makes the experience more intuitive and conversational for respondents.

With Paperform you can toggle on Guided Mode at any time to turn your static page into a fluid one-question-at-a-time experience. This is particularly useful for short surveys, and works particularly well for mobile devices.

3. Set clear intentions

A great way to avoid double-barreled questions, and other survey mistakes, is by setting clear intentions before you write your survey. This helps you define the kind of data you want to collect, and once that's done, you can outline the type of questions you'll need to ask to get it.

For example, if the purpose of a survey is to gauge the your website usability, you don't really need to ask a customer's name, or if they were happy with a product they purchased from you.

It's natural to want to gather as much data as possible. After all, you're trying to improve your business. But when you muddle up the intention of your form, you end up with ambiguous questions, and overly long surveys.

💡 Tip: By setting clear intentions you’ll also naturally avoid other common survey pitfalls, like vague language, open-ended questions, or leading questions.

4. Add context with open-ended questions

If you find closed-ended survey questions too limiting (this includes any answer with a pre-selected set of responses) you can use an open-ended question to offer respondents space to clarify their answers.

For example, say you're running a survey about your customer service experience, but also want to know if there was anything specific customers didn't like. Instead of using a double-barreled question, you can add an open-ended response field as well.

Check it out in action below. Using conditional logic, we've set it up so that if the customer grades the in-store experience 5 or under, a text field will appear asking them what they disliked. The opposite happens for 6 or above.

Keep in mind, though, that typed-out survey responses require significantly more effort, and are known to contribute to survey fatigue.

5. Make smarter forms with question logic

So much of survey creation is trying to make the process as simple as possible for your respondents to complete. Question (or conditional) logic empowers you to do this to personalize follow-up questions based on the responses previously given.

This means that, rather than having a webpage filled with questions, you can keep the experience to the point and tailored to each individual. Rather than using a one size fits all approach, you can ask respondents questions that are relevant to them.

Let's say you're a travel agent and you need a survey that asks two main questions:

  1. Where your customer wants to go
  2. Whether they have a visa for that location

With logic you can make the relevant prompt appear based on the answers given. Try it below. When you select no, there's no follow-up option, because there's no need to ask about visas if you're not interested in traveling to England.

But if you select yes, the relevant visa question appears. By not asking every respondent every question, you keep your surveys shorter and less daunting, while making them look sleeker and more professional. It’s a win-win.

With Paperform, conditional logic can be activated on any question. It's simply a matter of flicking a switch and setting up the "if"/"then" scenarios you need. Want to know more? Check out our video tutorial, or head to the help centre for an in-depth guide.

Over to you

Clear communication isn't easy. We all trip over words and ideas on our way to what we're really trying to say. But when designing surveys, clarity and accurate results aren't optional; they're essential.

Double-barreled questions fight directly against this. They're frustrating for your respondents, and skew the data you receive, leaving you none the wiser when the time comes to analyse your survey results.

Luckily, combating them is relatively easy once you know what to look for. Break them up into separate parts, and make sure you ask one clear question at a time, rather than trying to hit hundreds of birds with one stone.

Our easy to use, doc-style editor makes it easy to start creating beautiful surveys in minutes. With advanced question logic, one-question-at-a-time Guided Mode and thousands of integrations with your favourite apps, you'll be collecting meaningful data in no time.

Give our 14-day free trial a go, and make confusing, ambiguous surveys a thing of the past.


About the author
Eliza Frakes
Content Writer
Eliza Frakes is a content writer at Paperform. When she’s not writing for the blog, she’s probably writing a play (or acting in one), swimming in the ocean, or taking her very cute dog on a hike.

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