Survey Best Practices

Philip Cleave
June 10, 2022
Man using best practice advice to plan his next survey

From the initial design of your survey and question choice, to your survey distribution and reporting of results.

While it’s crucial to have the right survey software, it’s also hugely beneficial to have best practice advice to refer to during the key stages of your survey journey. This will help to maximise the value you gain from it and the data it generates.

So, to help you we’ve put together this top-level overview. This will give you some best practice considerations to think about before you launch your next survey.

Best practices for the design of your survey

Given the sheer volume of research and surveys in circulation at any one time, your survey needs to stand out and appeal to your target audience if it’s to generate the response and quality of data you need.

Your survey design is extremely important. It can literally make or break your survey’s completion rate. This is because many respondents may be unwilling to read your questions if your survey looks confusing or time-consuming.

So, having some top-level survey design best practices in mind during the planning stage is essential. It will also help you to set the right tone for your survey from the outset. Here’s some top-level advice to consider.

1. Set your survey’s goal and objectives

While it may sound obvious, there are still some businesses that create and send out surveys, without being fully clear about what they want to find out. Without such clarity, it will be challenging to identify what you should be measuring and the value from your answers.

While your survey goals will look to clarify your overall long term aims for running your survey, your objectives will break these down into the actions or steps needed to deliver this.

Creating goals and objectives as part of your plan is essential to your survey’s overall purpose and success. This is because they keep your survey organised and focused, and ensure your questions are as relevant as possible. They’re also more likely to generate the answers you need to take effective and actionable decisions.

2. Give your survey a strong introduction

To have the best chance of meeting your overall goals and objectives, you need to generate a strong response rate.

So, any tools you can use to boost the attention of your respondents, hook them in and encourage them to complete your survey, the better. And one of the best of these is your survey introduction.

The content of your survey introduction will be largely determined by your survey’s subject matter. However, more generally you can boost your response rate by including some of the following clarifications.

State clearly who you are, why respondents have been chosen, the purpose of your survey, how long it will take to complete and reassure respondents about their data privacy.

With only a short window of time to get your respondents’ attention such clarification can help to encourage and reassure them about completing your survey.

3. Keep things clear and concise

Again, it may sound obvious, but with limited respondent time, your survey needs to be clear and concise.

While your survey length can depend on your audience and subject matter; generally speaking, the shorter your survey the better, as many participants are unwilling to spend more than ten minutes completing one.

So, when you’re planning your questions, think about how you’ve worded them. Could you phrase them in a shorter and simpler way? Similarly, you need to ensure every question is relevant to what you’re trying to achieve. Irrelevant questions could easily put respondents off.

Clarity is crucial too. How easy are your survey questions to understand? Is each question likely to elicit a specific answer from your participants that adds extra value from the one answered before? If not, once again you could risk participants losing focus and not completing your form.

You might also include a progress bar with estimates of how much longer your survey will take to complete. This can help reassure people as they progress through your survey and help reduce your survey dropout rate.

4. Spend some time on your survey’s visual design

While it’s critical to get your questionnaire layout and format right, it’s also important that your visual design supports this.

An online survey that looks good, professional and is well presented is likely to achieve a much higher engagement rate than one that looks as though it has been thrown together quickly.

While paying special attention to the layout, fonts and colours you use can help engagement, using more sophisticated features such as white labelling and custom CSS, can take you up to the next level with a survey that completely replicates your brand.

Best practices for question choice

When it comes to the types of survey questions you should be using in your survey there’s lots to consider.

From closed and open questions, multiple choice and matrix questions to demographic and dichotomous questions and more. While there are many different question types, each with their own uses, advantages and even disadvantages, your question choice will be primarily influenced by the overall objective of your survey.

However, before you start writing your questions here are some general best practice tips to consider, to help optimise their success. These include.

1. Look to provide more closed-ended than open-ended questions

Although this will be influenced by your survey’s subject matter, generally you’ll want to include more closed-ended than open-ended questions. This is because given their aim of collecting quantitative data and restricting a respondent’s answer to a limited number of options to choose from, closed-ended questions are much easier to analyse. They’re also much simpler and quicker for respondents to answer, meaning they’ll be less likely to abandon your survey.

In contrast, open-ended questions are qualitative in their data aim. While this can provide you with a valuable insight into respondents’ thinking, they will take longer to complete.

2. Keep your survey questions neutral

When you’re writing questions, be mindful to keep them as neutral as you can. Without this you risk bias slipping into your questions.

Otherwise known as leading questions, biased questions can be really damaging to the validity of your survey, as the way they’re worded can lead to answers that don’t accurately reflect how your respondents really feel.

3. Maintain a balanced set of answer choices

It’s also important to think carefully about the answer choices you provide, as this can also introduce bias.

For example, if you were drafting questions for a customer service survey, in order to gauge how helpful or unhelpful customers found your customer support team, you would want to give them a full list of answer options both positive and negative. Without this it would be impossible to get a true idea of what customers thought and your feedback would be overly negative or positive.

4. Avoid asking for two things at once

Causing confusion for your respondents is almost as bad as inadvertently influencing their answers. And both are bad for leaving you with unhelpful data that fails to reflect the true opinions of your respondents.

A good example is the confusion resulting from double barrelled questions, where respondents are asked to assess two things simultaneously. Such is the case with the question below.

“How would you rate our customer service and product performance?”

Customer service and product performance are both completely separate subjects. So, trying to ask both at the same time will only result in feedback that fails to answer either effectively.

5. Make sure your questions are different from one another

Imagine how frustrated you’d be if someone kept asking you the same question. Well, that’s exactly how respondents can feel if you repeatedly ask them the same questions or repeat the same question prompts or answer choices again and again.

This can cause respondents to abandon your survey, or worse still straight-line all their answers, which offers no value to you whatsoever. So, be vigilant to check all your questions carefully before launching your survey.

6. Test drive your survey

Having to potentially abandon your survey, because you found mistakes in it after you sent it to respondents can leave you feeling really despondent. Worse still, it can reduce trust and participation among respondents if you send another survey to them in the future.

So, the best way to avoid this is to test drive your survey with colleague, friends and family first. As a fresh pair of eyes, they can objectively review it and point out any mistakes you need to correct. They can also help you to weed out any potential bias that might harm future responses.

Best practices for survey distribution

The survey distribution stage of your survey project is as equally important as your overall design and question choice. It’s essential, because if you’re unable to reach and effectively engage your audience, you will struggle to get the volume of completed responses you need.

Therefore, it helps to have some best practice advice to draw on. Here’s some pointers to think about to help maximise your engagement with respondents.

1. Use the most appropriate survey distribution method for your audience

When you’re thinking about what survey distribution method to use, you need to consider the demographics and characteristics of the audience you’re trying to reach.

For example, survey participant age groups might influence behaviours. Given their preference and connection with the latest technologies a younger demographic is likely to be more responsive to surveys sent by SMS, social media or QR codes than an older audience. In contrast, older audiences would be more comfortable receiving and responding to surveys via more traditional channels such as an email or an embedded survey link in a website.

It’s important to always have this top of mind. That way you will increase your chances of reaching and engaging your audience in places where they’re more likely to hang out.

2. Tell them about your survey in advance

Although this won’t be appropriate for all situations, it can be helpful to let groups such as long-term customers or employees that a survey will be shortly coming their way.

This can help build an air of expectation. It also gets participants in the right mindset and be thinking about some of the questions they may be asked, so they can hit the ground running when the survey finally reaches them.

3. Reassure respondents before they take your survey

Any assurances you can offer respondents can also have a major impact on your survey participation and completion rates.

Although their consent is typically implied through survey participation, it helps to make this obvious by spelling this out to respondents.

Similarly, if you’re to encourage respondent participation, you’ll want to offer any assurances you can about how you’ll keep their data safe.

In addition, if there are any personal questions or any identifiable information you need respondents to share with you, you need to point this out to them in advance.

4. Send reminders

For any number of reasons, respondents may not be able to take your survey immediately, even if they want to. Therefore, it’s prudent to send them reminders in case they forget it in the meantime.

It’s ok to send more than one reminder, as long as they are reasonably spaced out. The survey reminder is an effective weapon in your armoury for improving your survey response rate.

5. Follow up on your feedback

Always follow up on the feedback survey respondents have provided with your findings and next step actions.

It’s important to close the feedback loop otherwise your survey respondents will think you’re not bothered about the insight they’ve provided or have any intention of acting on it. This can also harm any interest you may have in reaching out to them again in the future.

You’ll also want to finish your surveys by saying thank you for participating, as failure to do may also harm any future participation from them.

Best practices for reporting results

Having created a great survey, gathered, analysed and interpreted its feedback, you’ll want to communicate your findings and next step actions effectively to those who matter. That’s where the value of reporting and best practice tips for reporting on survey results will help you.

Here’s a few top-level pointers to think about.

1. Your report introduction

Also known as your executive summary. Given the fact that some people will only read this, you will want to make this introduction as strong as possible.

Set the tone by explaining the purpose of your survey, providing context for the information you’ll be presenting.

2. Focus on your key facts first

To help engage and encourage your audience to read on you need to communicate your survey’s most crucial issues. This could be anything from the key drivers influencing your employees’ engagement levels, to satisfaction among your customer audience.

Further audience incentives could include offering them three or four standout findings from your research.

3. Communicate your results

One of the most important sections of your report, is your survey results section providing detailed analysis of your findings.

Besides top-level statistics, such as the volume of people you surveyed and the number who responded, you should look to highlight any interesting trends or patterns you have identified in your data.

Try to categorise and group similar data together to show relationships. And consider using headings and subheadings to break up the information.

Don’t forget to include what impact your survey findings will have on your audience, as this is the area that’s mostly likely to interest them.

4. Using visualisations to tell your story

Images and graphs are an effective way to communicate the key findings from your survey. Keep things interesting by presenting your data findings with a mix of visuals including pie charts, bar graphs and other formats.

Visuals such as text analysis or word clouds can be particularly effective for communicating the most interesting feedback trends and patterns from open questions.

5. Conclusion and recommendations

At the end of your report, you should provide a conclusion, providing an overview about what you would like readers to learn and take away from your survey. You should also include recommendations concerning any actions you would like them to take next.

Over-arching best practices

Having addressed some best practices to consider during the key stages of your survey, you should now be aware of the importance of effective planning in order to optimise the delivery and overall success of your survey.

However, there are some final points we need to reiterate and get you thinking about before your next survey.

Have clear objectives

We discussed the importance of objectives a bit earlier and their role in giving your survey structure, direction and helping you achieve your ultimate goal. However, it’s also important that once set, you should be continually thinking about and referring back to your objectives throughout. That way, you’ll be better able to keep your survey focused and on track to succeed.

Make your survey accessible

Finally, you’ll only maximise your chances of survey success if everyone that wants to respond, can do so.

Yet, if you’ve not considered accessibility issues you could be inadvertently blocking some people from accessing your survey. That’s because 1 in 5 people responding to your survey may have a disability, with estimates suggesting that up to 2 million people in the UK may have some form of sight loss too.

That’s why we developed our own WCAG accessible survey theme for our customers to use. Available free of charge and fully compatible with assistive technologies, our accessible survey theme allows users to add alt text to images and create surveys that can be navigated without mouse and keyboard. This makes them much easier to use for anyone with an accessibility issue.

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