How to create an effective survey
You don’t have to be an expert to create a survey, but by following a few survey best practices you can make sure you’re collecting the best data possible.
From working out what you want to achieve to providing incentives for respondents, survey design can take time.
But when you don’t have hours to devote to becoming a survey-creation guru, a quick guide to the essentials is a great way to get started.
In this article, we’re going to reveal how to create a survey that’s easy for survey respondents to complete, hits the research questions you’re interested in, and produces data that’s easy to work with at the analysis stage.
1. Define the purpose of the survey
Before you even think about your survey questions, you need to define their purpose.
The survey’s purpose should be a clear, attainable, and relevant goal. For example, you might want to understand why customer engagement is dropping off during the middle of the sales process.
Your goal could then be something like: “I want to understand the key factors that cause engagement to dip at the middle of the sales process, including both internal and external elements.”
Or maybe you want to understand customer satisfaction post-sale. If so, the goal of your survey could be: “I want to understand how customer satisfaction is influenced by customer service and support post-sale, including through online and offline channels.”
The idea is to come up with a specific, measurable, and relevant goal for your survey. This way you ensure that your questions are tailored to what you want to achieve and that the data captured can be compared against your goal.
2. Make every question count
You’re building your survey questionnaire to obtain important insights, so every question should play a direct role in hitting that target.
Make sure each question adds value and drives survey responses that relate directly to your research goals. For example, if your participant’s precise age or home state is relevant to your results, go ahead and ask. If not, save yourself and your respondents some time and skip it.
It’s best to plan your survey by first identifying the data you need to collect and then writing your questions.
You can also incorporate multiple-choice questions to get a range of responses that provide more detail than a solid yes or no. It’s not always black and white.
For a deeper dive into the art and science of question-writing and survey best practices, check out Survey questions 101.
3. Keep it short and simple
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 is keeping their attention and making sure they stay focused until the end of the survey.
Respondents are less likely to complete long surveys or surveys that bounce around haphazardly from topic to topic. Make sure your survey follows a logical order and takes a reasonable amount of time to complete.
Although they don’t need to know everything about your research project, it can help to let respondents know why you’re asking about a certain topic. Knowing the basics about who you are and what you’re researching means they’re more likely to keep their responses focused and in scope.
4. Ask direct questions
Vaguely worded survey questions confuse respondents and make your resulting data less useful. Be as specific as possible, and strive for clear and precise language that will make your survey questions easy to answer.
It can be helpful to mention a specific situation or behavior rather than a general tendency. That way you focus the respondent on the facts of their life rather than asking them to consider abstract beliefs or ideas.
See an example:
Good survey design isn’t just about getting the information you need, but also encouraging respondents to think in different ways.
5. Ask one question at a time
Although it’s important to keep your survey as short and sweet as possible, that doesn’t mean doubling up on questions. Trying to pack too much into a single question can lead to confusion and inaccuracies in the responses.
Take a closer look at questions in your survey that contain the word “and” – it can be a red flag that your question has two parts. For example: “Which of these cell phone service providers has the best customer support and reliability?” This is problematic because a respondent may feel that one service is more reliable, but another has better customer support.
See an example:
Also, if you want to go beyond surveys and develop a multi-faceted listening approach to drive meaningful change and glean actionable insights, make sure to download our guide.
6. Avoid leading and biased questions
Although you don’t intend them to, certain words and phrases can introduce bias into your questions or point the respondent in the direction of a particular answer.
As a rule of thumb, when you conduct a survey it’s best to provide only as much wording as a respondent needs to give an informed answer. Keep your question wording focused on the respondent and their opinions, rather than introducing anything that could be construed as a point of view of your own.
In particular, scrutinize adjectives and adverbs in your questions. If they’re not needed, take them out.
See an example:
7. Speak your respondent's language
This tip goes hand in hand with many others in this guide – it’s about making language only as complex or as detailed as it needs to be when conducting great surveys.
Create surveys that use language and terminology that your respondents will understand. Keep the language as plain as possible, avoid technical jargon and keep sentences short. However, beware of oversimplifying a question to the point that its meaning changes.
See an example:
8. Use response scales whenever possible
Response scales capture the direction and intensity of attitudes, providing rich data. In contrast, categorical or binary response options, such as true/false or yes/no response options, generally produce less informative data.
If you’re in the position of choosing between the two, the response scale is likely to be the better option.
Avoid using scales that ask your target audience to agree or disagree with statements, however. Some people are biased toward agreeing with statements, and this can result in invalid and unreliable data.
See an example:
9. Avoid using grids or matrices for responses
Grids or matrices of answers demand a lot more thinking from your respondent than a scale or multiple choice question. They need to understand and weigh up multiple items at once, and oftentimes they don’t fill in grids accurately or according to their true feelings.
Another pitfall to be aware of is that grid question types aren’t mobile-friendly. It’s better to separate questions with grid responses into multiple questions in your survey with a different structure such as a response scale.
See an example using our survey tool:
10. Rephrase yes/no questions if possible
As we’ve described, yes/no questions provide less detailed data than a response scale or multiple-choice, since they only yield one of two possible answers.
Many yes/no questions can be reworked by including phrases such as “How much,” “How often,” or “How likely.” Make this change whenever possible and include a response scale for richer data.
See an example:
By rephrasing your questions in this way, your survey results will be far more comprehensive and representative of how your respondents feel.
11. Start with the straightforward stuff
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.
This is especially valuable if you need to cover any potentially sensitive topics in your survey. Never put sensitive questions at the start of the questionnaire where they’re more likely to feel off-putting.
Your respondent will probably become more prone to fatigue and distraction towards the end of the survey, so keep your most complex or contentious questions in the middle of the survey flow rather than saving them until last.
12. Use unbalanced scales with care
Unbalanced response scales and poorly worded questions can mislead respondents.
For example, if you’ve asked them to rate a product or service and you provide a scale that includes “poor”, “satisfactory”, “good” and “excellent”, they could be swayed towards the “excellent” end of the scale because there are more positive options available.
Make sure your response scales have a definitive, neutral midpoint (aim for odd numbers of possible responses) and that they cover the whole range of possible reactions to the question.
13. Consider adding incentives
To increase the number of responses, incentives — discounts, offers, gift cards, or sweepstakes — can prove helpful.
Of course, while the benefits of offering incentives sound appealing (more respondents), there’s the possibility of attracting the opinions of the wrong audiences, such as those who are only in it for the incentive.
With this in mind, make sure you limit your surveys to your target population and carefully assess which incentives would be most valuable to them.
14. Take your survey for a test drive
Want to know how to make a survey a potential disaster? Send it out before you pre-test.
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 survey results.
Share your survey with at least five people, so that they can test your survey to help you catch and correct problems before you distribute it.
15. Let us help you
Survey design doesn’t have to be difficult — even less so with the right expertise, digital solutions, and survey templates.
At Qualtrics, we provide survey software that’s used by more than 11,000 of the top brands and 99 of the top business schools worldwide.
Furthermore, we have a library of high-quality, ready-to-use, and easy-to-configure survey templates that can improve your surveys significantly.
You can check out our template marketplace here. As a free or existing customer, you have access to the complete collection and can filter by the core experiences you want to drive.
As for our survey software, it’s completely free to use and powers more than 1 billion surveys a year. Using it, you can get answers to your most important brand, market, customer, and product questions, build your own surveys, get insights from your audience wherever they are, and much, much more.
If you want to learn more about how to use our survey tool to create a survey, as well as what else it can do — check out our blog on how to create a free online survey using Qualtrics.
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