How to Make an Awesome Survey
Surveys are an important part of my work at Idealware--they allow us to gather a large amount of information from nonprofits, and to get their perspectives on the technology they use. But surveys can be very difficult. If the survey is too long, most people will just stop answering questions; if people don't understand the questions, you won't get usable data.
While there's no such thing as a perfect survey, I've picked up a few tips for making the best possible survey that you can.
- Open-ended questions. These tend to get a lot of hate, mostly because they're not used correctly. But a few strategically placed comment boxes can help keep your respondents interested. For example, it's good to allow people to write in a response to a lot of basic demographic questions, like "What is your organization's primary focus area?" No matter how long or inclusive you think your list of answers is, people still don't want to be pigeon-holed. Adding that write-in field can help keep your respondents from feeling discouraged early-on. You may also want to consider adding a write-in box at the end of your survey, prompting people to "Describe something interesting about their organization," or something like that. You won't often get actually useful information out of it, but people like to answer them, and it allows them to explain themselves.
- Keep it short. Honestly, who hasn't started taking a survey, only to quit after one of ten pages? (I still do.) Why do organization keep making such long surveys? My guess is that they want to "shotgun" it; they figure that this survey is their only chance to ask their questions, so they try to cram in every question they have. Don't do this. Please. Try to focus your survey on a single topic, with only a few questions, but questions that will give you some answers. Let's say I'm surveying people's ice cream preferences. My first question will have them rate a list of ice cream flavors. The next questions will have the same list, but ask them which flavors they prefer in the spring, summer, fall, etc. (Remember to include an "opt-out" though: "None, I'm lactose-intolerant.") This way, I've only asked five questions, but I can easily compare them and see that pumpkin was the number one fall flavor, people don't eat ice cream in the winter, and that coffee is popular year-round.
- Pilot your survey. This is the single most important tip I can share. Before you unleash your survey upon the unsuspecting public, test it out on a few people you know. You want to try it out on people who would take the survey anyway. For example, if you're only sending the survey out to people with brown hair, ask a couple brunettes you know to try it out. Everyone will want to offer feedback about what they think you should ask, or what they like to see in surveys - ignore that. What you want to find out was if they understood the questions, and answered the way you expected. It's best to do this over the phone, and ask them to just think out loud. Oh, and keeping with the previous tip, try to keep track of how long they take--10 to 15 minutes is a good goal for a short, managable survey.
There you go, Kyle's Awesome Survey Tips. Feel free to share your own tips in the comment section.