Survey vs Questionnaire: A Comparative Guide

Apr 6, 2023 | 360 Degree Feedback, Performance Management

Survey vs questionnaire. Which is better? And Why? Both have become popular tools in the workplace. They allow organizations to easily gain employee input, especially when using automated tools. But to gain valuable insights, it’s important to follow some key principles when designing them.

This begins with understanding the scope and purpose of each of these tools.

Let’s explore this survey vs questionnaire topic. We’ll learn the differences—as well as their similarities. Then, we’ll walk through the process of designing and implementing them.

Table of Contents

1. Differences Between a Survey and Questionnaire

2. Survey vs Questionnaire: Similarities

3. Types of Surveys and Questionnaires

4. Steps to Conducting a Great Survey

5. Common Errors in Surveys

6. How to Write a Great Survey or Questionnaire

Differences Between a Survey and Questionnaire

At first glance, a survey and questionnaire may seem very similar (or even the same). But let’s unpack some of the nuances between them.


Questionnaire: A short list of questions about a specific issue.

Survey: A series of questions that provides an in-depth look at a topic. A survey could be composed of multiple questionnaires on subtopics.

Importantly, both a survey and a questionnaire are more than a list of questions. They’re a process. The full process includes review or analysis and follow-up. 


A survey is longer and more complex than a questionnaire. And it typically has a broader scope. For example, it might seek to learn why engagement has dropped. To do so, it could cover several subtopics, like culture, support, and enjoyment of work. 

Meanwhile, a questionnaire might inquire about a specific aspect of engagement. For example, it could ask employees about the level of support they receive from their manager. It has a simpler, more narrow focus than a survey.


Surveys can measure opinions and help spot trends. They deliver a thorough understanding of a specific topic, drawing conclusions based on the data they provide. 

A survey can also make comparisons that convey powerful insights. For instance, it could compare employee beliefs about their own skill level with what managers observe. By doing so, it might find that employees of certain groups have more self-confidence than others, despite having the same skill level. 

Or, a survey could compare employee beliefs about managers’ leadership skills with managers’ self-evaluations. In contrast, a questionnaire might simply ask people about their own developmental needs.

Questionnaires could help you spot trends in a more limited way, given their smaller scope. But in many cases, they focus on individuals’ needs. For example, questionnaires can serve the following purposes:

  • Assessing what people know about a given topic.
  • Determining an individual’s needs for training and support.
  • Evaluating an employee’s preferred learning style.

For instance, a questionnaire can assess whether people are using a new software correctly. In turn, that info can help get each individual up to speed. Likewise, managers could use a questionnaire to understand how each direct report learns best.


As mentioned, a questionnaire is shorter than a survey. A survey could actually include several questionnaires on different subtopics. Each questionnaire would have a narrow focus and short list of questions. Meanwhile, the survey as a whole would have a broader focus and a longer length.

Additionally, a survey uses few free-form questions. This means answers can be more accurately analyzed when synthesizing data across respondents. Because a questionnaire asks just a handful of questions, it’s easier to ask open-ended questions using this tool.

Review and Analysis

Due to its complexity and scope, analyzing the results of a survey can take more effort. A questionnaire may require a simple review of responses. With a survey, managers may use sophisticated tools to draw conclusions. Survey software can simplify administration and analysis of any survey (or questionnaire).

Longer and more complexShorter and simpler
Provides insights across a broad topicHas a narrower focus on a specific subtopic
Requires in-depth analysisRequires review, but not necessarily complicated analysis
Focuses on identifying broad trendsMay focus on individual needs
Less likely to include open-ended questionsCan more easily include open-ended questions

Survey vs. Questionnaire

Survey vs Questionnaire: Similarities

Two professional men and women discussing survey and questionnaires
Credit: Edmon Dantès/Pexels

Both surveys and questionnaires seek insights from a broad range of people. They both recognize that employees at all levels have valuable input. And both provide guidance on how to make positive changes in an organization.

We should also note that a pulse survey could be considered a questionnaire. This tool zeros in on a specific subtopic with a brief, focused list of questions.

Survey vs Questionnaire: When to Use Each

Here are some general pointers about when to opt for each of these tools.

Opt for a survey when …

  • You’re dealing with a complex subject.
  • You need to synthesize a lot of data.
  • You want to explore overarching trends.
  • You’re gathering data to help make a major decision.

Opt for a questionnaire when …

  • You have a fairly simple question.
  • You don’t need to gather data on lots of subtopics.
  • You want to ask open-ended questions about individuals’ experiences.
  • Drawing big conclusions isn’t your main purpose. 

A survey works well when you need to dig deeper. Instead of finding a quick answer, you need to gather different data points to fully understand an issue.

For example, a questionnaire could include questions like these:

  • How satisfied are you with our office space? 1 2 3 4 5
  • To what extent does the space promote focus? 1 2 3 4 5
  • What could we improve about the space? _______________________________________

Meanwhile, a survey could include several subtopics related to focus:

  • Physical environment
  • Engagement in work
  • Training and mentoring
  • Work/life balance

Let’s now take a closer look at different types of surveys and questionnaires.

Types of Surveys and Questionnaires

Black and white image of colleagues happily meeting in office to discuss surveys and questionnaires
Credit: Christina Morillo/Pexels

Just like surveys, questionnaires can cover a variety of topics, from productivity to benefits. They can include various types of questions as well, such as these: 

  • Multiple-choice questions. Respondents choose from several options in the form of words or statements, selecting the one they agree with most.
  • Open-ended questions. Here, respondents write a specific answer rather than selecting a response.
  • Rating questions. Here, participants rate their response on a scale. This can be a numeric rating scale, or it can include choices like “Unimportant” to “Very important” or “Never” to “Always.”

Using a mix of questionnaires and surveys throughout the year will deliver a range of helpful data.

Steps to Conducting a Great Survey

  1. Determine the purpose of the survey. As Rutgers says, ask yourself three central questions:
  • What do I need to know?
  • Why do I need to know it?
  • What will happen as a result of this survey?

2. Decide what you’ll be measuring. For example, you could measure behaviours, attitudes, goals, practices, skills, or perceptions, notes Rutgers.

3. Consider whom to ask. Will all employees complete the survey? Or does it apply specifically to certain people, such as first-year employees or managers?

4. Assure respondents of their anonymity, if appropriate. You’ll typically want to keep a survey anonymous, as results will be synthesized. If using a questionnaire to determine specific individuals’ needs, explain who will review the results.

5. Analyze the results using tools that assist in interpreting data. Such tools can also deliver a report to share with leaders. 

6. Plan your response. What actions will you take based on the data? You may need to consult with other leaders or managers during this step.

7. Discuss your findings with your staff. Announce plans you’ve created for taking action based on your findings. 

8. Assess satisfaction with the changes you’ve implemented. Administer a questionnaire to get employees’ input.

Proper follow-up will help people take your surveys and questionnaires seriously, showing you value their input.

Common Errors in Surveys

Avoid these common errors as you plan and conduct your survey:

  • Non-response error: Lack of responses from some respondents skews the results.
  • Sampling error: The group of respondents doesn’t represent the broader group’s demographics.
  • Measurement error: Questions have not been developed appropriately, resulting in confusion or ambiguity.

Administering a survey in person can also skew results. People are more inclined to choose a more socially desirable response when replying to an interviewer, notes the Pew Research Center.

How to Write a Great Survey or Questionnaire

Let’s review some important writing tips for both surveys and questionnaires. While surveys will typically be longer, many of the same principles apply to both.

  • Keep questions and instructions brief. Otherwise, participants’ focus will wane. 
  • Avoid leading questions. For example, steer clear of statements like, “Many of your peers feel this process needs to be redesigned. What do you think?”

    “Agree/disagree” questions are inherently biased, says Pew Research Center. Many participants are inclined to choose “agree.” 
  • Ask one question at a time. Otherwise, a question can be tough to answer accurately.
  • Add a handful of response options. Rather than just choosing “yes” or “no,” respondents can select answers on a scale. For instance, a Likert scale of 1–5 or 1–7 asks participants to rate how strongly they agree with a statement. On a questionnaire, you could include multiple choice options when fitting. (The shorter length of a questionnaire makes this more feasible.)
  • Place general questions on a topic before more specific questions. Otherwise, responses to specific questions can skew responses to general ones, asserts the Pew Research Center.

By crafting great questions, you’ll gain specific, detailed answers. 

Again, the right software can make administering a survey or questionnaire incredibly simple. Respondents will be prompted to complete it in a timely manner, and results will be clearly synthesized. Through this process, you’ll gain valuable data to inform talent management and organizational decisions.

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