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5 Best Practices for Good Survey Design

5 Best Practices for Good Survey Design


There are numerous tools out on the market to instantly create a survey, but that just makes it easier to have poor survey design. The design of a survey takes more than the ability to put one up on the Internet, it also takes some understanding of the objectives of a survey, the audience, and how to test and measure questions and their responses. Good planning is essential as well as a bit of ground testing before the final roll out.

Good survey design takes experience

5 Essential Ingredients Towards Perfect Survey Design

Conducting surveys can be a matter of experience. Whether you are going to DIY most of your research, use an internal team, or outsource some or all of the research process you will want to be sure that you at least follow some best practices to:

1. Target the Right Audience - You need answers from people that are representative of the group you are working to understand. The art is being appropriately inclusive of who you should be and excluding those people do not represent your target.  The fear of including someone that would never be a buyer of your products/services that will muddy up the results is usually what drives decision making. Be very wary of adding more and more restrictions to screening that limits the pool of people you get answers from too much.  In our opinion, more research projects fail to gather usable insights because they were too narrow in who they were willing to survey, not because they were too broad. With a good design and analysis, being more inclusive is usually better.

2. Word Questions Concisely - Questions should not be leading and closed end responses should not be so narrow the respondent gets frustrated. You also want to use skip patterns on questions affected by a previous answer, to maintain survey integrity. The questions and their orders will impact the answers later on, so you have to pay attention to how you word previous questions and what questions you choose to add to your survey later. The most obvious example is to ask for an un-aided response before putting a list of names in front of people.  Your goal here should be to appropriately create questions to make them as unbiased as possible.

3. Grade on a Scale, Where Appropriate - Most survey experts believe that a scale offers the best results, as it helps to define gradations in the data, unlike a yes or no answer. Answers that are affected by a respondent’s attitude are best put on a scale. If you are unfamiliar there is plenty of reference materials on standard scales that have been tested or you can know what you want to ask about and have someone with experience give you input.  The risk of a poor scale is analysis that does not provide clear insight or direction.

4. Test the Survey and get Feedback - Always pre-test a survey with people from the target audience. This is also could a "slow launch" or "live test".  Solicit this feedback from both the research respondent and the front-line employee delivering the survey.  You will get some useless information back, but often the people delivering the surveys (by phone, in-person, or managing the e-mail campaign) are experienced and know what works and what does not.  Pre-tests have many potential benefits including better participation, increased engagement, and better quality data. Most of all, you will be able to spot problems before they effect the entire study.

5. Pick the Right Methodology for your Audience and Topic - The default choice in survey research today is often online, but the right answer lies in matching up the research objectives with the target audience.  Budget considerations will never go away, but finding economical alternative solutions that will get to the audience you need and engage them in giving you valuable feedback is important.  Often times a blend of multiple methodologies or one project with multiple phases each with smaller sample sizes can be completed cost efficiently if managed well.   

Survey research is often difficult to manage and hard to follow through on.  Engage research vendors that will add value to the process by sharing their thoughts about how to make your research go well and providing service that helps deliver on the outcomes you need to achieve.  

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