Designing surveys, like designing anything, should not be done lightly.

On the surface it seems like a real easy thing to do.  All you need to do is come up with a couple of questions, find a  good survey tool, send the survey to your target audience, sit back relax while your audience complete the survey and wallah —- you get a rich set of information catered for your business’s needs. Oh, how I wish it was that easy!

Like most things in life Survey Design is easy to learn but can take a lifetime to master. Well it’s seems like a lifetime to me. Sometimes many lifetimes (I do wonder sometimes if I open that fob-watch I might remember where the blue box is).

Anyhow, I digress. Here is a list of things I learnt from designing surveys, which my Uni lecturers didn’t warn me about.

1) Your target audience really don’t care

Audience wont care about your survey no matter how good you are at designing surveys
Why should I care?

Well they care, but just a little.  Even your best followers, your favourite customers won’t care all that much.  Sure, they will say to you, “this is great I’ll get on to it“, however more often than not they won’t fill out the form. 

This is not because your audience are a bunch of insensitive daemons, hell bent to make your life a misery. They just have other priorities. Which more often than not will conflict with the completion of your survey. 

Unfortunately, this will mean that you may not get the participation rate you wish for. Well, not easily. You will have to work on it.   The method I found which works the best is a combination of offering a bribe and frequent (but gentle) reminders.  

Yes, there are some who will argue that offering a reward to complete a survey will skew the results. To some extent that is correct, but unless your survey isn’t a part of a ground-breaking research, I personally wouldn’t worry about it.  I really wouldn’t worry about it if your target audience is your customer base.  Every customer loves a freebie.

As for the gentle reminders? Keep the survey running for as long as possible but not too long as so they keep putting it off.  Three to four weeks is quite OK for a 10- question survey.  How long a survey should be open for is going to depend upon the importance of the information you are seeking and what you are going to use it for. 

E.g. I am currently running a survey asking my audience what they would like to see in my social media activities, 2 to 3 weeks should be enough to get enough information to help me make the appropriate questions. Whereas last year I designed a 50 plus questionnaire regarding customs satisfaction levels of my client’s products. This survey was opened for approx.3 months.

Always try and find a balance between getting as many people to fill out the survey and not put them off by constant bugging. Nobody likes spam.

2) Your audience will always follow the path of less resistance

When designing surveys remember people will look for short cuts
How do I finish this quickly?

This ties in with lesson number one. The audience will try and complete your survey in as quick as time as possible. So please do not expect a lot of well-constructed thought out paragraphs or your answers. 

Also, if you allow for the respondent (that’s jargon for person who fills survey) to skip a question, they will.

I’m my early days, I designed a survey on a well-known survey application and forgot to include the *requires and answer* function on all the questions.  You can imagine the horror on my face when I discovered that over 50% of respondents did not answer any of the questions other than the demographics and filling out the email address so they could receive their prize. 

It was not my finest hour.

Not surprisingly the best way to overcome this is to make sure every question needs an answer. However, be warned, if you design a survey with lots of input boxes, you risk the chance of people giving up and not completing the survey.

When designing a survey, you should have some idea of what answers you should get. Instead of getting them to write in an input box, give them a choice of pre-selected answers. E.G. if you’re asking what type of product they use, instead of leaving them a blank box to fill, list all your products. This will also give them a gentle reminder of what products you sell. There is nothing wrong with a sneaky product placement 😉

However, there may be a very good reason where you may not know all the answers (especially if you are testing an unknown market).  If you do need to leave a blank box or two in your survey, don’t put then back to back. A wall of blank boxes in survey is a bit like a wall of text on a social media post.

Also, if you do need a blank box, please DO NOT press the *requires an answer* button. That is a sure-fire way to upset your audience. Especially if they don’t actually have an answer. Not everyone does.

3) If there is a way to misinterpret your question, they will

Designing survey can be irksome if your audience doesn't speak your language -- even if that language is English
is there a way to misinterpret your question?

English is a funny language. However, it doesn’t always make me laugh.

There are so many words which can be interrupted as meaning the same thing. I suppose that is why there are so many puns.  For example, the words big, large, tall and heavy can seem to be almost interchangeable these days. But in some instances, the usage of these words will have a different meaning for some people than for others.

Interestingly, but won’t come as a surprise, there are words out there which will have two or more meanings. Words, such as bark, nails, jam, bolt and season just to name a few. There are so many words with multiple meanings in the English language it’s not as novel as you would think.

Then, let’s not forget about words which look like they have similar meanings across different industries but don’t.  E.G Classifying has a different meaning to Records Manager than it does to a Librarian. It also has a different context in the field of Ecology.  An Archivist in a museum may not do so well as an Archivist in a Library or a Hall of Records.

I could go on, but I won’t.

The best way to avoid confusion is to be exact with your questions.  Take your time, think about who your target audience is. What “language” do they speak?

Also, for the love of all things decent in the world, please avoid jargon at all costs. It is an easy thing to do, especially if you have been in an industry for a very long time.  

Just like with the advice I receive with how to write blogs; you should try and speak the language your audience is accustomed to.

Just one more thing

Those are the biggest three lessons I have learnt whilst designing surveys. I would dearly love to tell you I learnt these lessons very quickly, but my Mum always told me not to lie.  

So please do not make these same mistakes as they can cause you all sorts of grief, such as:

  • Not getting enough meaningful data to make informed decisions,
  • Getting data which makes no sense at all
  • Having to redesign a new survey and ask the same people to redo the survey (very embarrassing indeed),
  • Looking like a total amateur to your client, and
  • Reimbursing a client for your failures.

Or if that sounds too risky, then you could always contact me (Michael Crook) and I can design the perfect survey for you.

Online Research Matters

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