10 tips for creating online surveys that deliver useful information

By Angela Schuster

The increasing plethora of free or near-free survey tools seems to correspond directly to an increase of poorly planned and designed surveys that fail to deliver useful information.

Creating an online survey that provides valuable information is more than just throwing a few questions and answers together. Here are 10 tips that will help you avoid producing a survey that sinks.

  • Start at the start
    A well-designed survey starts well before you write your first question. It starts with thinking about the actual problem you want to solve and then setting out some clearly formulated objectives that will help you solve the problem.

  • Identify the audience
    Broadcasting your survey out to the whole wide world may mean you achieve an excellent response rate, but this will actually provide very little value. If you have a specific audience, make sure you identify them as this will help you formulate targeted questions and select targeted methods of distribution.

  • Avoid a blow out
    Often surveys “blow out” in size when people write the survey and then circulate it within their company for comment. Typically, this happens because everyone in the company sees this as an opportunity to ask a pile of unrelated questions that would be “nice to know”.

    To the person completing the survey, “a couple of extra questions” could be the difference between happily responding and being completely annoyed at how much time the survey is taking (and bailing out without finishing it).

  • Use “skip logic” features
    Have you ever answered a survey and been asked a question that would only be relevant if you had answered a different way to the previous question? This is the hallmark of a poorly constructed online survey.

    With most online survey technology, “skip logic” (or conditional-branching if you want the technical term) is standard and should be used.

    Skip logic changes the course a respondent takes based on answers to certain questions. Basically, it is rule you create that says “If a respondent answers Yes at question 3 then jump over question 4 and 5 and give them question 6”.  Skip logic is a seamless experience for the user – they do not know it’s even happening.

  • Write your survey in Word first
    The best way to build a survey is to write your introduction, questions, answers and any skip logic in a Word document. Once the survey is finalised then build it online.

    Editing a survey once it is online, for example moving, deleting or adding questions and answers, is time consuming. Using Word, you have your final signed off text and instructions at your fingertips so can copy and paste and apply skip logic instructions more easily.

  • Include concise instructions
    If you need lengthy instructions then an online survey probably isn’t the way to go and your results will be questionable. Keep instructions basic and make sure the survey technology you use is intuitive.

    Don’t leave people to guess, your results will suffer for it. Make sure you include “Not applicable”, “Unknown” or “Unsure” options. If you don’t you are forcing people to make a decision they actually may not be able to make. This will skew your results.

  • Make your invitation simple and descriptive
    Once you have constructed your survey, you need to ensure people complete it. If it’s being sent to a database by email, you need to ensure your invitation motivates people to respond. A few key points for a good invitation that ensures a solid response rate are:

* Ask for their help, assistance or feedback
* Keep it short and to the point
* Include the link multiple times in the email
* Tell them how long it will take – number of questions or time
* Tell participants that responses will remain confidential
* Be spam compliant
  • To give or not to give
    Deciding whether or not to offer respondents some form of gift is always a tough choice to make.  One trick is to offer a summary of the survey results to every person that responds. This works particularly well because people like to know what their peers are doing or thinking and how they compare.

  • Test, test and test
    Once you have finalised your survey, send a test email to yourself and a few others in your organisation and go through the process of opening the email, reading it and taking the survey. Make sure all of the links work, check for typos, make sure the instructions are clear and the question and answer sequence and style is logical and intuitive.

  • Remail
    A good tactic to increase response rates is to remail the invitation a few days after you sent the first email. This acts as a reminder and can double response rates. Read more about remailing in a previous post: The benefits of remailing

The Upshot

Just because there are tools that let you “throw” a survey together, doesn’t mean you’ll end up with useful and reliable data. Following just a few simple tips and tricks will however, help your survey deliver insights and information that you can more reliably use in business decision making.
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