Mastering Matrix Questions in Surveys: Definitions, Examples, and Best Practices

Manoj Rana
October 7, 2023
min read
Mastering Matrix Questions in Surveys: Definitions, Examples, and Best Practices
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Are you looking for ways to streamline data collection and boost response rates? Have you been struggling to craft questions that capture the information you need? Matrix questions are an invaluable tool that can help you create better, more engaging questionnaires — but only if you understand how to use them properly.

What Is a Matrix Question?

A matrix question is composed of a group of subquestions, all of which share the same set of multiple-choice answers. These subquestions are closed-ended and usually designed to explore various aspects of a topic or issue.

Matrix questions are easily identified by the grid-like format in which they're presented, with each row containing a subquestion and each column representing a response option.

Types of Matrix Questions

While they can be implemented in many different ways, there are two basic types of matrix survey questions you need to know. The most common are single-selection questions, which only allow users to select one answer for each row. Conversely, multiple-selection questions are more wide-open, letting participants choose whichever responses apply to them.

One unique way to use matrix surveys is known as the Likert scale. Developed in the 1930s by psychologist Rensis Likert, this format is a slight twist on single-selection questions. It incorporates a list of items for which respondents are asked to rate their sentiments on a linear scale.

A familiar example is a matrix of customer satisfaction questions with answers ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree."

How To Use Matrix Questions

With all due respect to Neo, mastering the matrix isn't quite as easy as it might seem. It takes a firm understanding of not only how to use these questions but also when to choose them over other tools. Fortunately, we've got a few simple tips to help you hone your surveying skills.

Consider Your Purpose

What kind of data are you hoping to collect? What questions do you need to ask? What problem are you trying to solve? These are all key points to consider when creating a questionnaire.

In general, a matrix question is most useful for situations in which:

  • You have a number of similar questions on related topics
  • Your questions can be answered by the same array of responses
  • You need to collect in-depth info on multiple facets of a single topic

Because of this, the matrix format is typically used for questions pertaining to customer experience, behavior, and satisfaction. It allows you to evaluate a large number of relevant factors while keeping the total number of questions manageable.

Take, for instance, a company that makes personal care products. Knowing how frequently their customers purchase various products is valuable information, but asking about each item of interest individually would be tedious and time-consuming.

Instead, these items can all be bundled together into a matrix:

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This ability to group subquestions also makes it easier to explore and compare how different variables affect customer attitudes and perceptions.

For example, a hotel might use a Likert-type matrix to evaluate guests' satisfaction with various aspects of their stay:

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Choose the Right Type of Matrix Question

Although the various matrix question types appear to be nearly indistinguishable, they serve fundamentally different purposes.

A single-selection matrix is suitable for any question that requires choosing between mutually exclusive options, such as how often respondents use different products or which aspects of a service they like best. A Likert scale functions similarly, but its linear, sentiment-based responses are specifically devised to assess how respondents feel about a particular product, company or topic.

Of course, not all queries are limited to a single answer. By letting users select more than one response for each item, a multi-select matrix can provide much greater freedom and flexibility to ask questions that generate actionable insights.

To see how it works, let's break down a simple example:

In a single question, a multi-select matrix like this can generate a substantial amount of information.

A smartphone company could use this data to evaluate its closest competitors, identify key features to focus on and even analyze larger market trends.

Practice Strategic Survey Design

Context is key when it comes to deciding when and where to use a matrix question. Mixing in a well-designed and thought-out matrix or two is an excellent way to keep things fresh, but poor implementation can disrupt the flow of your whole questionnaire.

It's best to allow respondents to warm up with a few short, straightforward questions before dropping a matrix on them. Although most people are familiar with the format by now, it can be discouraging when presented right away.

In addition, it's a good idea to structure your questionnaire so that questions become progressively more specific and in-depth.

By leading participants into a matrix question, you can give them more context and ensure better answers.

Matrix Question Pros and Cons

When you're creating a questionnaire, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to getting the best data. Every type of question has trade-offs and limitations, and matrix questions are no different.

However, by understanding what they do well — and what potential problems they can cause — you'll be better able to employ them for optimum effect.

The Good

If you're looking for abundant, high-quality feedback, your greatest adversaries are boredom and confusion. Simply put, questionnaires that are perceived as being too long, too dense or too unclear burn people out. When used properly, matrix questions directly alleviate each of these issues.

Packaging related items together in a grid allows respondents to swiftly evaluate and respond to a whole series of questions at a glance.

As such, the benefits of matrix-type questions include:

  • Reduced survey fatigue
  • Improved completion rates
  • Enhanced clarity
  • Greater convenience
  • More granular data collection

The Bad

Question matrixes are as simple and convenient to create as they are to answer. Unfortunately, while this sounds like a positive in theory, that's not always the case in practice. It's easy to overwhelm respondents by adding too many items and too many response options to each matrix, increasing the risk of dropout. Unwieldy matrix may also lead to straight-lining, a phenomenon in which overload or boredom prompts respondents to answer repeatedly with the same response.

Since these questions typically have to display a lot of information at once, formatting can also be tricky. In particular, it's often difficult to design a matrix that will remain correctly formatted across the many devices respondents use, including desktop PCs, laptops, mobile phones and tablets. As such, the drawbacks of using a matrix question include:

  • More challenging implementation
  • Cross-platform usability issues
  • Potentially poor response behaviors
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Best Practices for Writing Matrix Questions

Despite their downsides, question matrixes can still be incredibly useful when they're designed with intention and executed in a thoughtful, well-integrated way. Follow these essential best practices to ensure you get high-quality results with every matrix question you include in your questionnaires.

Focus on the Key Data

A comprehensive, ultra-detailed questionnaire isn't much help if you can't actually get people to complete it. As tempting as it is to pack each matrix with loads of interesting items and a wide-ranging spectrum of responses, all that work is likely to be counterproductive.

Instead, it's important to keep things as focused and straightforward as possible.

Start by clearly defining each question and what you're trying to learn from it. As you begin adding items and responses, consider them carefully to determine whether they're really necessary. Do they provide relevant, useful information that can help you make decisions and better understand the issue?

Paring down your matrix to only the most crucial questions and answers ensures respondents don't get burned out or suffer from decision fatigue.

Optimize for Usability

If a survey isn't user-friendly, it's almost certainly going to fail. Unfortunately, many usability problems are ultimately caused by poor matrix question design. Grids that are too big can be intimidating, causing people to reflexively skip the question or answer without reading. So, how many rows and columns should a good matrix have? While there's no universal answer, a grid with no more than five rows and five columns is usually a safe bet.

Additionally, it's critical to check your work before going live. Whenever possible, test your questionnaire on a range of devices and make sure that your matrixes are displaying and functioning as intended. It's better to have a smaller, simpler matrix — or no matrix at all — than to have a question that drives people away.

Use Clear and Concise Language

No one wants to sift through a wall of text just to answer a few questions. While it's important to communicate clearly, it's also vital to avoid cluttering up users' screens with unnecessary details. Craft your questions and labels with care, editing out any words that aren't strictly needed to get your point across.

Better surveys mean better data, giving you the competitive edge you need to achieve success.

By mastering the art of asking effective matrix questions, you can equip yourself with an arsenal of new tools to start generating high-value information and insights.