Skip to main content

Survey Design: Conceptualization, Operationalization, and Indicators

Conceptualization, Operationalization, and Indicators

When designing a survey you should be intentional. Prior to writing survey questions researchers should go through the process of (1) conceptualization, (2) operationalization, and then generate (3) indicators. 

(1) Conceptualization

What is Conceptualization? Defining and agreeing on the definition of a concept. When researchers conceptualize a topic they search for existing definitions of a given concept both generally (e.g., Google search) and academically (e.g., in journal articles, textbooks, and definitions given by a respected academic/professional group) and use the results from their search to conceptualize. 

Purpose: Refinement and specification of abstract concepts

Example: You are studying the mental health outcomes for older adults with physical disabilities.

Thus you will need to conceptualize three things (1) mental health, (2) older adults, (3) physical disabilities. 

(1) Mental Health: a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.

(2) Older Adults: people who are 55 and older 

(3) Physical Disabilities: is a limitation on a person's physical functioning, mobility, dexterity or stamina

(2) Operationalization

What is Operationalization? Development of specific research definitions that will result in empirical observations representing those concepts in the real world. This is a process of strictly defining variables into measurable factors thus you will need hyper specific operationalizations (see below).  This process defines “fuzzy” concepts and allows them to be measured empirically.

Purpose: To remove vagueness- all variables in the study must be defined. 

Example: You are studying mental health outcomes for older adults with physical disabilities. 

Thus you will need to operationalize your three conceptualizations of (1) mental health, (2) older adults, (3) physical disabilities. 

(1) Mental Health: a person's condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being including stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. 

(2) Older Adults: people who are 55-85 years old

(3) Physical Disabilities: a limitation on a person's physical functioning that is related to accomplishing instrumental activities of daily living (IADLS)

Note: Operationalizations are usually similiar across studies but are often different in their specifics. For example, some studies operationalize older adults as someone who is over 65, some measure mental health by a diagnosis by a mental health professional of certain conditions such as depression or schizophrenia, and other studies operationalize physical disability by specific diagnosis of a given condition. 

(3) Indicators

What are Indicators? Survey or interview questions used to measure study variables defined and outlined through the operational definition

Purpose: To generate questions that directly relate to a study's topic

Example: You are studying mental health outcomes for older adults with physical disabilities. 

Using the operationalizations for the study you will design indicators. Each indicator should serve a specific purpose in the study. 

operationalization for mental health : a person's condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being including stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. 

Indicators for stress: Perceived Stress Scale PSS) 

(1) In the last month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?

  • Never
  • Almost never
  • Sometimes
  • Fairly often
  • Very often

(2) In the last month, how often have you felt confident about your ability to handle your personal problems?

Never

  • Almost never
  • Sometimes
  • Fairly often
  • Very often

(3) In the last month, how often have you felt that things were going your way?

  • Never
  • Almost never
  • Sometimes
  • Fairly often
  • Very often

(4) In the last month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?

  • Never
  • Almost never
  • Sometimes
  • Fairly often
  • Very often 

What are Indicators? Survey or interview questions used to measure study variables defined and outlined through the operational definition

Purpose: To generate questions that directly relate to a study's topic

Example: You are studying mental health outcomes for older adults with physical disabilities. 

Using the operationalizations for the study you will design indicators. Each indicator should serve a specific purpose in the study. 

operationalization for mental health : a person's condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being including stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. 

Indicators for stress: Perceived Stress Scale PSS) 

(1) In the last month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?

  • Never
  • Almost never
  • Sometimes
  • Fairly often
  • Very often

(2) In the last month, how often have you felt confident about your ability to handle your personal problems?

  • Never
  • Almost never
  • Sometimes
  • Fairly often
  • Very often

(3) In the last month, how often have you felt that things were going your way?

  • Never
  • Almost never
  • Sometimes
  • Fairly often
  • Very often

(4) In the last month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?

  • Never
  • Almost never
  • Sometimes
  • Fairly often
  • Very often 

​You will repeat the process of using operationalizations to generate indicators until you have covered every area of each operationalization.