Hypothetical Questions

When it comes to survey question types there’s a lot of debate around hypothetical questions and whether there’s any value to including them in your survey.

While some researchers feel they should be avoided, others believe that in some cases they can provide valuable additional information that would otherwise be missed, thereby justifying their inclusion.

What are hypothetical questions?

A hypothetical question is one based on supposition, not facts. They are typically used to elicit opinions and beliefs about imagined situations or conditions that don’t exist.

However, these types of survey questions can also be asked in the context of events that although haven’t occurred yet, could potentially happen, thus requiring the respondent to express how he or she would handle a hypothetical event or situation that might occur in the future.

Hypothetical question examples

From employee surveys to customer surveys. Whatever survey you’re planning and audience you’re looking to target, many surveys you create will typically include a mix of factual and more subjective questions, offering a balance between quantitative and qualitative feedback – so you can gather both statistical and behavioural data insights.

When it comes to more subjective questions, what’s interesting to note is that there are some situations where the ability to measure how people might feel or respond to an event or situation that doesn’t currently exist can actually be quite beneficial, which is where hypothetical questions can be very advantageous.

Here’s a few examples to think about:

1) Recruitment

For many organisations, even those with the most experienced and organised HR teams, the process of recruiting new employees can be hectic, long winded and stressful.

Fortunately, with the use of online recruitment surveys this process can be significantly shortened and simplified. From surveys that help your communications with recruitment agencies concerning the exact candidate requirements you need, to surveys that help you to more quickly identify the skills you need from candidates that have applied to you direct, online tools such as these have a key role to play in enhancing your recruitment process.

But it’s not just the online survey tools themselves, but the questions you ask, which is where the benefit of using hypothetical questions comes in.

For example, when you ask many people about the recruitment process, they tend to think solely about the initial CV gathering process and then the interview itself. But depending on the seniority and technical scope of the position, there could be lots of assessments in the lead up to the main interview itself, which you could facilitate with an online survey or questionnaire and the inclusion of hypothetical questions. The effectiveness of this approach is highlighted in research by ScienceDirect.

You could choose to include one or more of the following during your own recruitment assessments:

  • Online questionnaire to assess the professional qualifications and technical skills of the candidate
  • Survey assessment to test the knowledge level of the candidate
  • Online survey to assess candidate’s personality and suitability to meet the job requirements and the company culture

In the latter assessment concerning the candidate’s personality, you could potentially ask them a series of open-ended hypothetical questions, in order to get a better measure of how they might react in specific situations that you see as common to a particular job role. Questions such as the following could potentially help you to select between two very close candidates.

How would you respond to a problem that you discovered?

If I told you that you failed, what would be your first reaction?

How would you react if you had to complete a task that made you dissatisfied with your job? How would you address this with management?

2) Market research

As with any area of business, it’s very hard to move forward if you don’t know with any certainty which direction you should be moving in, which is where the benefit of data and insight from surveys can help.

The same can be said if you’re looking to improve your understanding of existing and potential new customers, or need to identify the best route to take for the development of new products or services, which in this case would be best facilitated through a market research survey.

From promotion surveys and audience surveys, to brand surveys and product surveys. With lots of survey discipline types within market research that you could potentially call on, your questions will be crucial to what you’re able to find out. So, it’s important to have the right mix for your needs including where appropriate, the use of hypothetical questions.

For example, let’s say you worked in the area of product development and were either thinking about developing your existing product, or had a preliminary idea about a new solution, which you believed there was a potential demand and gap in the market for.

In both incidences the use of hypothetical questions could provide you with valuable information about what you needed to do next.

In the case of developing your existing product, having found your customers responses to your previous questions about suggested new product features to be inconclusive, you may decide to ask them a hypothetical question such as the following instead:

If you could have any feature that doesn’t currently exist what would it be?

While it may seem at first glance that all you’re likely to receive back from this question is a very long list of random answers, it may not be the case if your product is already very established and familiar among your customers. In the latter instance, with some prior knowledge about your product, it’s more likely that you will receive a smaller number of new feature suggestions, and therefore a higher incidence among your customers of suggesting the same new feature idea, which would give you something useful to work with moving forward.

In the case of the second scenario regarding an idea about a solution that doesn’t currently exist, but you believed there could be a demand for. You could initially outline a description of this hypothetical product to your survey respondents and then after ascertaining whether they might buy it, follow this up with a series of hypothetical questions about their willingness to pay for this product, such as in the following:

At what price would you consider the product to be too expensive?

At what price would you consider the product to be priced so low that you’d question its quality?

Advantages and disadvantages of hypothetical questions

While we’ve provided a description of what hypothetical questions are and a couple of examples of how you could potentially use them, it’s useful to have a snapshot their pros and cons. So, that if you do use them, you’re using them in the best possible context, that will maximise their value to you, while minimising any limitations.

Benefits

Here are some beneficial reasons why you might like to use hypothetical questions in your survey:

Pick up information that you might otherwise miss out on

In certain situations, the use of hypothetical questions could benefit you in providing you with information that you would be unaware of, such as in market research. If you’ve gone to your customers many times previously with ideas and had a lukewarm response, asking them what they would like to see instead can be very fruitful.

They can help with the creation of new ideas

As just discussed, the open nature of hypothetical questions can enable you to probe your target audience for their thoughts, which can in some cases can generate valuable ideas that you many never have thought of, such as in features for a new product or service.

They help indicate how something might perform in a hypothetical situation

As discussed earlier there are situations where it’s useful it’s to know in advance how something might conclude, in order to come to a decision. This is certainly the case in a recruitment situation, where the use of hypothetical survey questions could help you to better assess how a job candidate might perform in different scenarios, before choosing whether to hire them or not.

Shortcomings

As with any research method or approach, as well the reasons why it can help you, it’s important to be aware of any limitations. So, we’ve outlined some of the key ones for you below.

They can be too vague

While the idea behind hypothetical questions is to see how respondents might feel or act in imaginary or yet to happen situations, the data they produce tends to be inconsistent and unclear.

They can be too complex and time-consuming to analyse

Similarly, depending on the size of your survey, hypothetical questions could lead to a large volume of completely different answers that are not only challenging to analyse, but could take you ages to work through. However, if you were careful about how you framed your questions, you could help limit the impact of these issues.

They can be viewed as simply a waste of time

Given their vagueness some researchers view hypothetical questions as a complete waste of time, arguing that humans are generally bad at making predictions, so why try asking someone what they would do in an imaginary situation set some time in the future.

How to use hypothetical questions

Having explored the argument for and against the use of hypothetical questions including some of their benefits and limitations, and examples of where they can add value to your research, we hope you are better informed about how to use them.

While there are some obvious downsides, which has led many researchers to dismiss them, there are some situations where hypothetical questions can be highly beneficial, such as generating ideas for new products, services and campaigns, and for staff recruitment.

As with any area of research, you always need to look at what you want to find out first and what strategy you’re looking to take, whether that’s quantitative, qualitative or a mix of both approaches before making a judgement about whether to use them. And if you do this, you will be more likely to include them when most appropriate and maximise your value from using them, while minimising any limitations.

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