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Tips for conducting surveys amongst humans

January 4, 2012

A few questionnaires that I have seen recently have comprised questions that are technically adequate but presented brusquely in an order that made no sense at all. 

A person who is writing a survey would generally begin with a list of themes to be covered, flesh the themes out into rough questions, and then tighten up the rough questions ensure they make sense. 

But questionnaire design should not stop here!   A person who is writing a questionnaire should think about the respondent at all times and go the extra mile to make their questionnaire a pleasant experience for the respondent.

Do not underestimate the power of writing a respondent-friendly questionnaire.  If the respondent is happy this will achieve:

  • Less confused or irritated respondents.
  • Fewer drop-outs / higher response rates.
  • Higher quality data (based on more responses and coherent thought processes).
  • More meaningful results / decisions based on results.
  • Good feeling towards the sender of the questionnaire (which could be your company!)
  • Good feeling towards future questionnaires / the research industry.

So how can a researcher go about writing a respondent-friendly questionnaire?

Firstly, get the questionnaire order right by thinking about the ‘story’ you are trying to outline.  If you want to find out about a sequence of events your respondent went through (such as a transaction or purchasing decision), a good way to present it is to re-take them through the experience chronologically.  This means the respondent will recall everything in a logical order and therefore give more coherent responses.  Ask respondents about behaviour before attitude:  it is easier for people to answer questions about what they did (i.e. what did you have for breakfast today?) rather than what they think (i.e. what are the relative merits of toast as compared to eggs?).  Asking easy questions first warms respondents up to the harder parts of the questionnaire meaning that they give fuller and more considered responses.

Secondly make your questionnaire look nice and welcoming rather than scary and intimidating.  Use an accessible font and colour scheme along with your branding and logo, and start with providing a realistic estimate of how long the questionnaire will take to complete.

On a hard copy survey:

  • Keep the survey down to a page or two if possible.
  • Do not allow questions to run over a page break.
  • Make sure there is plenty of white space on a page.
  • Keeping routing (i.e. Skip to Q4) clear and easy to follow.

On a web survey:

  • Put one or two questions on each page (rather than all of them on one page) so that no scrolling down is required. 
  • Include a status bar so respondents can see how much of the survey is left to complete.

Thirdly, be courteous – include a pleasant and welcoming intro at the start of the survey explaining who you are and what you are doing, and at the end of the survey thank the respondent for their time.  Be polite, and let them know you appreciate their input. 

In previous blog posts I have written about the importance of thinking about what you want to get out of your survey, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of being human.

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