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How to use this manual
What is formative research?
What do you want to know?
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Demographic questions
Most surveys contain demographic questions appropriate to the population you’re interested in learning about. Demographic characteristics may be important to distinguish differences in behaviors or attitudes reported by males and females, or young adults and middle-aged persons. Such information may be valuable both for interpreting the results and for making policy decisions regarding what services to offer, in what format, and in what quantity. Here are some examples of demographic questions:   

  • age:    How old were you on your last birthday? _____ years 
  • race/ethnicity. There are lots of ways to ask this question. One typical way:
    Do you consider yourself to be. . .       
    African American or Black        
    Hispanic or Latino       
    Asian or Pacific Islander       
    American Indian       
    Other (please specify____________)   

  • marital status:       
    Are you currently. . .       
    Never Married

  • education:       
    What is the highest grade or schooling you have completed?         
    1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade
    5th, 6th, 7th, or 8th grade
    9th grade
    12th, no diploma
    High school graduate (or GED)
    Some college but no degree
    Associate degree in college - Occupational program
    Associate degree in college - Academic program
    Bachelor’s degree
    Master’s degree 
    Professional school degree
    Doctorate degree

Time frames
Ask questions with reasonable time frames. For example, if you want to ask questions related to HIV-related sexual risk behaviors, it is important to ask for those behaviors within a time frame that the respondent will be able to remember. Most survey questions ask respondents to report sexual behavior in the last 12 months, 6 months, 3 months, 30 days, or “last encounter”. When you’re asking about sexual activity, you may want to use a shorter time frame than when you are asking about numbers of partners.


In the past 12 months how many of the women you had sex with were one-night-stands or someone you had sex with only once? 
                       __________ women

(for men who have sex with men)These next questions ask about different sexual activities you may have engaged in with other men. In the past 30 days, with how times have had insertive anal intercourse with (MAN #1)?
                        __________ times

Two basic approaches to scaling often used in surveys are rating and ranking. Rating questions ask the respondent to make an evaluation according to a pre-coded set of ordered response choices. For example:

Rating question: In general, do you rate your health at the present time as very poor, poor, good, or very good?

Very poor    1
Poor    2
Good    3
Very good    4

Another common scaling technique is to ask the respondent to make an evaluation by ranking a group of items.

Ranking question: Please rank the following items in order of how important you think they are to receiving adequate health care. Assign a value of 1 to the item you think is the most important and 2 to the item you think is the second most important, and so on, for all seven items.

a. Convenience of location
b. Convenience of hours
c. Ease in getting an appointment
d. Your out-of-pocket costs
e. Quality of treatment or care
f. Length of waiting time in the office
g. Explanation of diagnosis and treatment

NOTE: The following manual was helpful in the development of portions of this section on survey pointers: “Design and conduct of community sample surveys: a manual of principles and techniques.” Prepared by Survey Research Laboratory, University of Illinois, for the City of Chicago Department of Human Services. November 1982.

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Good Questions, Better Answers --  1998 California Department of Health Services and Northern California Grantmakers AIDS Task Force  --