Three Tips To Improve Your Next Online Survey

I’ll admit it…I haven’t always been a fan of online surveys. My introduction was not a happy one. I had just contacted a client to ask about our ongoing annual research study. I was told that my services were no longer required as they were now using Survey Monkey. What the heck was a Survey Monkey? My worst fears had come true…I’ve been replaced by a monkey. Why couldn’t they call it Survey Einstein? I’d be okaywith that. Maybe Mom was right. I should have been an accountant.

Since that ill-fated day I’ve learned to embrace the monkey and a variety of other online survey platforms. After all, In comparison to other data collection methods, an online surveyallows us to gather information quickly and at a low cost. But I’ve also learned this lesson…all of the pitfalls that exist for other survey techniques exist for online surveys. As the techies like to say, “garbage in, garbage out”. To avoid this danger I encourage you to keep three key rules in mind as you embark on your next online survey:

1. Clearly define your research objectives

2. Consider the flow of your questions

3. Think carefully about the wording of your questions

1. Clearly Define Your Objectives

If you’re thinking about conducting any type of research, step number one is to ask, “why are we conducting this survey”? Everything will flow from your answer including the method and the questions you ask.

All too often, even before determining our objectives, we have decided that we need to do an online survey. In my mind, this is putting the cart before the horse. Ask yourself…

What are my key information needs?

How will we use this information?

What actions will we take based onthe information that we gather?

Your questionnaire can be measured against these objectives. “Is the question necessary? Does it satisfy one of the objectives of the study”? Keeping your objectives focused and specific will result in a questionnaire that shares these characteristics. Ultimately this will improve the quality of the responses as well as the response rate.

2. The Flow of Questions

The manner in which you organize your questions is a key tool that you can use to engage the respondent and ultimately improve your response rate.

My overall recommendation is that your questionnaire should have a logical and coherent flow. Think of a questionnaire as a type of conversation. A conversation will typically move from one topic to another in a logical fashion. A conversation that jumps around in a random fashion can be exhausting.

A conversation will also move from the general to the more specific. Therefore I suggest putting your general and non-threatening questions up front. This will serve to draw respondents into the survey.

There is a school of thought that argues that it is important to put the critical questions at the beginning of the survey. The premise is that if the respondent decides to quit part way through you still have obtained key information. I think it is preferable to maintain the integrity of the whole questionnaire and stick to the overall structure i.e. moving from the general to the specific.

One also sees a number of questionnaires that begin with demographic questions. I prefer to leave these questions to the end of the survey. My feeling is that they can be somewhat intrusive at the beginning.

3. Question Wording

As you develop your questionnaire, continually ask yourself, “will the respondent understand this question? Is the language appropriate?” Always remember to keep it simple and avoid complicated language. As well, avoid ambiguous and vague words.

Ask yourself, “Is there common agreement in the terms I am using”? For example, we might use, “In the past year have you used social media?” Do we mean since the beginning of the year or the past 52 weeks?

Give very precise instructions for each question e.g. instruct the respondent to check “one box only” or “check all that apply”. It’s a good idea to emphasize important words in the question or instructions.

If you are providing the respondent with a list of alternatives in a close-ended question, make sure that the list of responses contains all possibilities. This list should give them the opportunity to check “other”. This can be followed with “please specify” and a text box so that you can capture this information.

Also allow for the possibility that the respondent will not know the answer or that the question is not applicable.Therefore, it’s usually a good idea to include “don’t know” or “not applicable”as a possible choice.

Final Thoughts

Online surveys are an efficient and relatively inexpensive method of collecting information. It’s not surprising that their popularity continues to increase. But (there’s always a but) your survey results (output) will only be as valid and reliable as the thinking that went into the design of the questionnaire (input).

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