By the
Mind Tools
Editorial Team

Developing Surveys

Asking the Right Questions the Right Way

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Keep your survey to a reasonable length.

If you want to know someone's view on a particular topic, you go and ask them, right? Getting their answer directly is much better than second-guessing what their response might be.

The challenge comes when you want to gauge the opinions of several groups of people. For example, you may need to assess the mood of your team or department in response to a new initiative you've introduced. Or you may want to test out an idea with your customer base before launching a new product or service.

Whether it's corporate culture issues, or customer satisfaction research, the best source of feedback and suggestions is usually the primary stakeholders themselves. We can try to guess what customers want, or what motivates workers – or we can simply ask them directly.

That's where surveys come in. Surveys give you the chance to ask a target group of people a set of questions about a particular subject, project, or issue. You can then use their views to tailor your strategy, or review your approach.

However, do bear in mind that effective surveys involve much more than writing down questions, and asking people to respond.

What, therefore, do you need to know about surveys before you implement one? And how do you maximize the value you gain from them?

This article outlines the strategies and techniques that will help your survey deliver the desired outcome.

Planning the Survey

If you simply sit down and start writing questions, you may risk missing critical elements of the data you want to capture. Take time to plan your approach, and decide what you want to achieve.

Consider the following when planning your survey:

  • Determine your survey goals – What do you want to learn from your respondents? The clearer you are about what you need to know, the more focused your questions and answers will be. Do you want satisfaction ratings, or people's opinions? Are you measuring attitudes, or predicting future needs?
  • Identify your target population – Whom do you want to survey? Respondents could be past customers, potential customers, job applicants, workers in a particular geographic location, and so on. Before you define your target audience, assess how their answers will help you achieve your objectives. Also, make sure that you have access to your desired respondents. Are you able to contact the right people to ask your questions?

    Be aware of the potential bias associated with your target population. For example, if you survey only former workers, or people who have contacted your customer service department, you're likely to receive a higher proportion of negative answers. This is because former staff may have left the company because they were unhappy, and people tend to contact customer service when they have a complaint.

  • Decide your sample size – How many responses are enough to give you the information and insight you require? Larger samples usually allow you to reach more reliable conclusions from the audience's responses. However, you don't want to survey too many people. Ideally, you need a balance between the number of responses, and your ability to process and analyze them.
  • Choose your survey method – How will you deliver the survey? The time and budget you've got available will often determine how you carry out the research. Here are some options, and the common advantages and disadvantages of each:
    • Person to person – In one-on-one interviews, it's easy to change or clarify your questions as needed. However, these interviews take a lot of staff time, so you have to decide if the investment is worth it. Some companies use telephone interviews to reduce costs, but this can also be expensive.
    • Mail – This can be cost effective, and relatively easy to organize. This method also allows respondents to complete the surveys at their own convenience. However, there is a tendency for people to ignore this kind of survey, and there's no opportunity for you to explain the questions. However, there are ways to improve response rates, which we discuss below.
    • Internet – Email and online surveys are growing in popularity, partly because they're inexpensive to deliver. Email surveys can be limited in the types of questions you can ask – but you can set up surveys on websites so that they're interactive, and you can even program them to react in real time to the responses given. However, there are disadvantages to Internet surveys. Respondents must have access to a computer and the Internet. And, you need to make sure that only the target audience has access to the survey, and that respondents answer only once. However, there are various survey tools available – such as Surveymonkey, PollDaddy, and Google Forms – that aim to make the whole process easier.

    Your survey method may create biases. As we said, online surveys limit your respondents to computer users with Internet access. One-on-one interviews can be affected by the time of day – for example, if you're surveying office staff during work hours, they may be pressed for time. And interviewing people in one location may reach only one socioeconomic group, or have another limiting factor. Consider any potential biases when choosing your method.

  • Determine your survey length – How many questions will you ask? The key here is to be very focused on your goal. If you allow multiple stakeholders to contribute, you'll quickly end up with a list of questions that's far too long. It's important to be ruthless in challenging the value of each question, and to avoid including the vague 'nice to knows,' or the ones that do not contribute to your goal. Bear in mind that the survey length may influence the quality and quantity of responses you receive. When a survey is too long, people may get bored – and either fail to complete it, or answer too quickly to save time. If the survey takes more than five minutes to complete, people may not bother doing it at all. If the survey is too short, you may not get enough information to meet your research goals. Also, consider asking the same question in different ways to evaluate the reliability and integrity of the responses. KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) is a good guideline when determining your survey length.
  • Choose the types of questions – Will you use true/false, multiple choice, ranking, or open answers? The more customized your responses, the more work it takes to interpret the results. Simple multiple-choice or limited-choice questions can be scanned into a computer, and analyzed quickly. However, you may lose some of the detail by taking this approach, so consider the pros and cons of each option.

It's important to consider these basic planning elements, and be clear about your objectives and basic strategy, before you start writing the survey questions.

Developing the Questions

You can use two basic types of questions in a survey...

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