How to Avoid Asking Leading Questions: The Complete Guide

Quick quiz. Which phrasing of a follow-up question will result in more accurate results in your next user research?

The third question will get you the most reliable response, but why? Because each of the first two questions is leading – meaning that it includes or implies the desired answer to the question in the phrasing of the question itself.

Problem: The interviewer rephrases what was observed, which may not be an accurate representation of the user’s experience. To the interviewer or observer, it may have looked like the respondent was struggling with navigation, but she may have been deciding what information was most important, confused by the task, or exploring various areas of the site. The question also names a user interface element — the navigation — which is a term that users may or may not fully understand, relate to, or normally use.

Problem: Again, this question implies the answer and assumes that navigation was the problem. It also puts the blame on the user, rather than on the site. It focuses the question on the user’s actions as opposed to the elements in the site that may have contributed to the user’s actions.

Improvement: This question steers the user to the topic of interest — moving around the site and finding content — without suggesting terms or feelings to the user. The user can say it was simple to move around or difficult, without disagreeing with the interviewer. Here the interviewer offers a general frame for the topic of the question, rather than suggesting a response.

Much of user research is observational — we watch what users do. But we also listen to what users tell us, and in many instances, we request clarification about what they tell us. We ask follow up questions after tasks. We may prompt users to share more information in the moment. We start a session by asking for or confirming some basic information about users.

Honest, unbiased participant feedback is critical for user research. When we ask questions, we want to learn more about the user’s actions. Why was this piece of content clear? Why did an interface element cause difficulties? Leading questions are a problem because they interject the answer we want to hear in the question itself. They make it difficult or awkward for the participant to express another opinion. This is particularly true in a usability-study interaction, where often the interviewer is the “authority” in the room and many participants will not want to disagree.

Leading questions result in biased or false answers, as respondents are prone to simply mimic the words of the interviewer. How we word these questions may affect the user response and also may give them extra clues about the interface. We may end up with inaccurate feedback that may or may not truly reflect the user’s experience, mental model, or thought process. Or, even worse, we may alter that user’s behavior for the rest of the session. For example, an unexperienced facilitator asked “What do you think this button does?” in a session and made the user realize that the text she was pointing to was in fact an active link.

Leading questions ultimately rob us of the opportunity to hear an insight we weren’t expecting from the user. The more leading our questions are, the less likely the user will comment in a way that surprises or intrigues us, or makes us think about a problem or solution in a different way. They may be good for “validating” designs, but are definitely bad for testing designs.

Keep in mind that sometimes the best question is not a question at all, but a redirection to help users continue their thoughts. When we do want to ask questions, how can we avoid leading the user?

Leading questions subtly guide respondents towards a desired answer This biases results and compromises data integrity, Crafting truly neutral questions takes skill and vigilance,

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover what makes a question “leading” the pitfalls of leading questions and tips to avoid them when conducting surveys, interviews, research or having any objective discourse.

What is a Leading Question?

A leading question steers respondents towards a certain response over others Some characteristics of leading questions

  • Suggests the “right” or expected answer within the question. E.g. “Don’t you agree robots are the future?”

  • Makes assumptions about the respondent or their beliefs. E.g. “As a liberal voter, how will you vote on Measure A?”

  • Uses biased phrasing that favors a certain viewpoint. E.g. “How can we stop dangerous criminals from getting guns?”

  • Limits answer choices to one likely option. E.g. “Should we fund the new highway project, yes or no?”

Leading questions imply a desired response rather than allowing free expression. Even subtle bias in wording undermines data integrity.

Dangers of Leading Questions

Asking leading questions can negatively impact surveys, research, interviews, legal cases, and more by:

  • Skewing results – Participants feel pressured to give the answer the question seems to favor regardless of their true feelings.

  • Confirmation bias – Questions phrased to confirm the researcher’s existing assumptions rather than exploring topics neutrally.

  • Loss of objective data – Questions elicit biased responses that don’t reflect respondents’ authentic perspectives.

  • Flawed analysis – Data and findings derived from led responses lead to inaccurate analysis and conclusions.

  • Leading witnesses – In law, witnesses may alter testimony to align with biased questioning.

Leading questions undermine the truth and introduce systemic bias. Scientific rigor, legal processes, and research validity depend on asking neutral questions.

Examples of Leading Questions

Here are some common ways questions lead respondents:

  • Assumptive statement ahead of question: “As someone concerned about climate change, do you support a carbon tax?” (Assumes concern about climate change)

  • Good/bad dichotomy: “Do you agree the new policy is bad for small businesses?” (Suggests policy has a negative effect)

  • Selective wording: “How has the liberal media misrepresented the family values platform?” (Biased use of “liberal media” and “family values” phrases)

  • Burying alternatives: “Tax cuts are the best way to stimulate growth, don’t you agree?” (Favors tax cuts over other options)

  • Choices limit response: “Should we downsize the police force or reallocate funds to social programs?” (Limits options to two)

Any phrasing that pushes respondents towards certain conclusions should raise red flags.

Crafting Neutral Questions

Here are tips for phrasing objective, unbiased survey and interview questions:

  • Avoid assumptions – Don’t assume respondent knowledge, backgrounds, beliefs or attitudes.

  • Open vs closed-ended – Ask open-ended questions rather than yes/no or other closed-ended ones.

  • No selective wording – Avoid charged words, vague terms, or buzzwords that signal a desired response.

  • Multiple choice options – Provide balanced answer options vs binary yes/no/agree/disagree choices.

  • Neutral tone – Use a plain, non-judgmental tone. Don’t imply answers are right/wrong.

  • Avoid double barreled questions – Ask one question at a time. Don’t combine two questions into one.

  • Test and refine – Have neutral third parties review questions to spot any unintended bias.

Removing bias takes awareness and iteration. But neutral questions yield far better data.

How to Spot Leading Questions

Here are ways to identify potential bias in survey, research or interview questions:

  • Watch for assumptions – Does the question imply facts not necessarily in evidence? Assumptions lead respondents.

  • Language bias – Does the wording favor a particular viewpoint or conclusion? Watch for selective phrases.

  • Answer direction – Does the question seem to guide respondents to a specific answer?

  • Limited choices – Does the question limit answers at the expense of open expression?

  • Double questions – Are two questions combined into one in a way that leads?

  • Extreme adjectives/adverbs – Does language exaggerate or state absolutes like “totally”, “always” etc.?

  • Question source – Is the question written by someone with a vested interest or bias in the topic?

Scrutinizing how questions are asked provides clues to unintentional biases.

When are Leading Questions Acceptable?

While typically undesirable, in some cases leading questions may be appropriate:

  • Legal cross-examinations – Attorneys often use leading questions to control testimony and make a specific point.

  • Political debates – Moderators sometimes ask challenging questions to pin down candidate positions.

  • Marketing/advertising – Businesses ask leading questions to guide consumers toward purchases.

  • Education – Teachers may lead students towards correct answers to test comprehension.

  • Therapy – Therapists guide patients to realizations with appropriate leading questions.

In limited contexts like these, leading questions serve narrow purposes. But for general research, truth-seeking, and open discourse, neutral questions remain critical.

Writing Truly Neutral Questions

Constructing unbiased, open-ended questions takes practice and refinement. Here are tips:

  • Ask exploratory questions: “What media sources do you frequent for news and why?” rather than “Do you think the mainstream media is biased?”

  • Use neutral phrases: “To what extent do you support expanding rail transit?” rather than “Do you oppose expanding our inadequate rail transit system?”

  • Avoid either/or constraints: “What factors most influence your vote?” rather than “Does policy or character matter more in how you vote?”

  • Separate double questions: Rather than “Do you support raising taxes on the wealthy and closing corporate tax loopholes?” ask: “Do you support raising income taxes on high earners?” and “Do you support eliminating corporate tax exemptions?”

  • Have reviewers probe for bias: External reviewers should scrutinize questions to spot unintended biases.

Leading questions pollute data. Carefully crafted neutral questions elicit authentic views and truths.

Best Practices for Avoiding Leading Questions

Here are some key practices for keeping your research, surveys, interviews, and assessments bias-free:

  • Frame questions in a fully neutral, open-ended way.

  • Avoid words or phrases with embedded assumptions or bias.

  • Steer clear of binary yes/no or agree/disagree questions when possible.

  • Have neutral third parties review your questions for leading language.

  • Test questions on smaller samples and tweak language that skews responses.

  • Use tools like text analysis to flag biased language for review.

  • For different demographics, ensure questions are neutral and clear across cultural contexts.

  • Train researchers, interviewers, survey designers, etc. on crafting objective questions.

  • Design rating scale questions to have balanced options, not just varying degrees of an extreme.

Being vigilant, iterative, and comprehensive reduces biased questions and their distorting effects.

Consequences of Leading Questions

The impacts of leading questions depend on the context but can include:

  • Flawed or unusable survey and research data

  • Inaccurate analysis and conclusions from skewed data

  • Biased interview responses that don’t reflect true attitudes

  • Witness testimony that is altered by selective questioning

  • Reinforcing prejudices through confirmation bias

  • Underrepresentation or marginalization of certain groups

  • Misinformed policies, products, processes that arise from biased data

In all fields – from science, to journalism, law and policymaking – leading questions undermine the impartiality required for true understanding.

The key to reliable insights is vigilantly crafting neutral questions every step of the way. With care, leading questions can be minimized or eliminated, resulting in research, findings and decisions with greater integrity.

how to avoid leading questions

What Makes a Question Leading

You may be familiar with the idea of leading questions from courtroom dramas, as lawyers call out: “Objection! Leading the witness!” There are many ways in which we can prime a user to simply repeat or confirm our bias, agenda, or assumption. Some practitioners may do it intentionally, trying to get confirmation for their own theory about what does or does not work in a design. However, most of us do it unintentionally. To gather user insights, we should ask open-ended questions — questions designed to elicit explanations from users, rather than single-word yes, no, or multiple-choice answers. How we ask these questions is essential to the value and validity of the feedback we receive. Here are some common traps to avoid:

  • Do not rephrase in our own words.
    • Participant: “I notice this picture here…”
    • Researcher: “You mentioned that the picture was helpful. What about it did you like?”
    • Improvement: “You mentioned the picture…?”
  • Do not suggest an answer.
    • “How well would this save time for you during your workday?”
    • Improvement: “How might this affect your efficiency, if at all?”
  • Do not name an interface element.
    • “The related links on the side of the page here — where would those lead?”
    • Improvement: “This area on the side of the page… [point to area]. What is that?”
  • Do not assume you know what the user is feeling.
    • “When you were struggling with this task, what was happening?”
    • Improvement: “What was easy or difficult about completing that task?”

Trial: Examining Witnesses Without Asking Leading Questions

What are leading questions?

Leading questions are questions or statements that contain assumptions or affirmations and encourage respondents toward a specific answer or outcome. When using leading questions, we make inferences about people’s feelings or experiences, and as a result, collect biased results.

How do I avoid asking leading questions in a survey?

Related: How To Avoid Researcher Bias (With Types and Examples) Follow these steps to avoid asking leading questions in a survey: 1. Keep your questions short It’s helpful to keep your survey questions concise. Ask only one question per survey question, and keep each survey question to a sentence or two in length.

What types of leading questions should you avoid?

If you’re in the process of creating or editing survey or interview questions, you’ll want to avoid and watch out for the following types of leading questions: Assumption-based questions include unnecessary context or bias that impacts how a person will respond to the prompt.

How do you avoid complex leading questions?

Avoiding complex leading questions is simple—divide the two questions you’re asking at once into two separate questions. In doing so, you might also notice you’ve asked other types of leading questions. In our case, “Do you think our support team is efficient?” may lead respondents to give a favorable answer.

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