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The five essentials of building effective surveys

Daniel Saunders - Head of Content EMEA - Qualtrics

It’s easy to think of research and data collection as something complicated that only a trained data scientist can do. In reality, modern survey tools mean that just about anyone can run their own research, gather insights and perform their own data analysis.

This said, there’s a big difference between being able to launch a survey and being able to generate real, meaningful insights.

Given this fact, it’s more important than ever for people of all backgrounds to be able to design and build effective surveys and questionnaires. Regardless of whether you’re a CMO, customer experience professionals or an HR leader, you have to know the basics of good survey design to ensure you’re gathering accurate, meaningful insights.

With this in mind, here are five essential tips that everyone should consider when designing their own survey.

  1. Make the most of what you’ve got.

Although you may be deeply committed to your survey, the chances are that your respondents aren’t. As a survey designer, a big part of your job must be to keep your respondents’ attention, making sure that they stay focused until the very end of the survey.

To do this, you need to avoid long, time-consuming surveys, or surveys that bounce around haphazardly from topic to topic. To keep things short, make sure each question adds value and drives responses that relate directly to your research goals. For example, if your participant’s precise age or location is relevant to your results, go ahead and ask. If not, save yourself and your respondents some time and leave those questions off the list. 

  1. Stay away from buzzwords and research jargon

As a researcher, it can be all too easy to design surveys with the type of language you or your colleagues might use. But most people don’t speak, or even think in those terms.  As such, you need to ensure the language you use is only as complex or as detailed as it needs to be.

Use terminology that your respondents will understand, keeping language as plain as possible, avoiding technical jargon and keeping sentences short. However, beware of oversimplifying a question to the point that its meaning changes. Your language must be simple, but also carefully thought through. You don’t want to run the risk of accidentally leading your respondents’ answers as a result of the informal language you use.

  1. Focus on the structure of your questions…

It may seem obvious, but how you choose to structure a question can entirely change the outcome. In general, I’d avoid using grids or matrices when structuring survey questions. Matrices of answers demand a lot more thinking from your respondent than a scale or multiple-choice construction. They need to understand and weigh up multiple items at once, as such, they often won’t fill in grids accurately or according to their true feelings. Grids may make you feel like you’re getting more data, but the reality is that you’re rarely getting more insight.

Unless grids are essential to your research, try and swap them out for response scales wherever possible. Response scales capture the direction and intensity of attitudes, providing rich data. When designing these scales, however, try to avoid asking respondents to agree or disagree with statements. Qualtrics’ research has shown that many people are biased towards agreeing with statements, and this can result in invalid and unreliable data.

  1. But don’t forget the order

As well as thinking about the structure of your questions, you also need to consider the order. Ease your respondent into the survey by asking easy questions at the start of your questionnaire, then moving on to more complex or thought-provoking elements once they’re engaged in the process. Too many difficult questions up front could lead to significant drop-off rates, with participants assuming that an already complex survey is only going to get more difficult as it progresses.

Structuring surveys in this way is especially valuable if you need to cover any potentially sensitive topics. Never put sensitive questions at the start of the questionnaire where they’re more likely to feel off-putting.

Your respondent will also become more prone to fatigue and distraction towards the end of the survey. As such, keep your most complex or contentious questions in the middle of the survey flow, rather than saving them until last.

  1. Don’t forget to test

Time is money, and often researchers want to send their surveys to respondents as quickly as possible — many times untested. But rushing to distribute a survey can often result in unforeseen problems with the data collection.

However short or straightforward your questionnaire is, it’s always a good idea to pre-test your survey before you roll it out fully, so that you can catch any possible errors before they have a chance to mess up your results.

Typically, it’s a good idea to run your survey on a small number of respondents prior to sending it out to your entire sample. This allows you to test the question flow and gives respondents the opportunity to flag any areas of confusion or frustration. If you have the time and budget available, additional pre-tests such as running focus groups, pilot studies or side-by-side A/B experiments can also prove extremely valuable to ensure your survey works as expected.

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