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Qualitative study design

Surveys & questionnaires


Qualitative surveys use open-ended questions to produce long-form written/typed answers. Questions will aim to reveal opinions, experiences, narratives or accounts. Often a useful precursor to interviews or focus groups as they help identify initial themes or issues to then explore further in the research. Surveys can be used iteratively, being changed and modified over the course of the research to elicit new information. 

  • Structured Interviews may follow a similar form of open questioning.  

  • Qualitative surveys frequently include quantitative questions to establish elements such as age, nationality etc. 


Qualitative surveys aim to elicit a detailed response to an open-ended topic question in the participant’s own words.  Like quantitative surveys, there are three main methods for using qualitative surveys including face to face surveys, phone surveys, and online surveys. Each method of surveying has strengths and limitations.

Face to face surveys 

  • Researcher asks participants one or more open-ended questions about a topic, typically while in view of the participant’s facial expressions and other behaviours while answering. Being able to view the respondent’s reactions enables the researcher to ask follow-up questions to elicit a more detailed response, and to follow up on any facial or behavioural cues that seem at odds with what the participants is explicitly saying.
  • Face to face qualitative survey responses are likely to be audio recorded and transcribed into text to ensure all detail is captured; however, some surveys may include both quantitative and qualitative questions using a structured or semi-structured format of questioning, and in this case the researcher may simply write down key points from the participant’s response.

Telephone surveys

  • Similar to the face to face method, but without researcher being able to see participant’s facial or behavioural responses to questions asked. This means the researcher may miss key cues that would help them ask further questions to clarify or extend participant responses to their questions, and instead relies on vocal cues.

Online surveys

  • Open-ended questions are presented to participants in written format via email or within an online survey tool, often alongside quantitative survey questions on the same topic.
  • Researchers may provide some contextualising information or key definitions to help ‘frame’ how participants view the qualitative survey questions, since they can’t directly ask the researcher about it in real time. 
  • Participants are requested to responses to questions in text ‘in some detail’ to explain their perspective or experience to researchers; this can result in diversity of responses (brief to detailed).
  • Researchers can not always probe or clarify participant responses to online qualitative survey questions which can result in data from these responses being cryptic or vague to the researcher.
  • Online surveys can collect a greater number of responses in a set period of time compared to face to face and phone survey approaches, so while data may be less detailed, there is more of it overall to compensate.


strengths Strengths

  • Qualitative surveys can help a study early on, in finding out the issues/needs/experiences to be explored further in an interview or focus group. 

  • Surveys can be amended and re-run based on responses providing an evolving and responsive method of research. 

  • Online surveys will receive typed responses reducing translation by the researcher 

  • Online surveys can be delivered broadly across a wide population with asynchronous delivery/response. 


limitations Limitations

  • Hand-written notes will need to be transcribed (time-consuming) for digital study and kept physically for reference. 

  • Distance (or online) communication can be open to misinterpretations that cannot be corrected at the time. 

  • Questions can be leading/misleading, eliciting answers that are not core to the research subject. Researchers must aim to write a neutral question which does not give away the researchers expectations. 

  • Even with transcribed/digital responses analysis can be long and detailed, though not as much as in an interview. 

  • Surveys may be left incomplete if performed online or taken by research assistants not well trained in giving the survey/structured interview. 

  • Narrow sampling may skew the results of the survey. 


iconExample questions

Here are some example survey questions which are open ended and require a long form written response:

  • Tell us why you became a doctor? 
  • What do you expect from this health service? 
  • How do you explain the low levels of financial investment in mental health services? (WHO, 2007) 


iconExample studies

Below has more detail of the Lancet article including actual survey questions at: 

  • World Health Organization. (2007.) Expert opinion on barriers and facilitating factors for the implementation of existing mental health knowledge in mental health services. Geneva: World Health Organization.