UK: Improve Your Online Surveys

Last Updated: 13 March 2012

Online surveys are popular with both businesses and their customers, with good reason. For a business, conducting an online survey is a good way to learn about the attitudes, feelings, needs and problems of customers and staff. And individuals respond well to online surveys because they can complete them in their own time. But to achieve the best results, you need to pay attention to the quality of your survey.

A well-thought-out online survey that is easy to fill out and doesn't confuse respondents will:

  • achieve higher response rates
  • provide higher quality data
  • provide you with actionable, clear information for your business decisions.

To create a good online survey, apply the ten basic rules set out below.

1. Clearly define the purpose of the survey

Fuzzy goals lead to fuzzy results. The last thing you want to end up with is a set of results that provide no real decision-enhancing value. Good online surveys have focused objectives that are easily understood.

Spend time up front to identify these objectives, in writing. This may sound obvious, but there are plenty of examples of surveys where a few minutes of planning could have made the difference between receiving quality responses that are useful as inputs to decisions, or uninterpretable data.

Consider the case of the software firm that wanted to find out what new functionality was most important to customers. The survey asked: "How can we improve our product?" The resulting answers ranged from "Make it easier" to "Add an update button on the recruiting page". While this data may have been interesting, it was not really helpful for the product manager who wanted to make an itemised list for the development team, with customer input as a prioritisation variable.

Spending time identifying the objective might have helped the survey creators to determine which of the following they were trying to understand:

  • customers' perception of the software, in order to identify areas of improvement (e.g. was it hard to use, time consuming, unreliable?)
  • the value of specific enhancements, in which case they would have been better off asking customers to please rank from 1 to 5 the importance of adding X new functionality.

Up-front planning helps to ensure that the survey asks the right questions to meet the objective and generate useful data.

To define the purpose of the online survey, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why are you creating this survey?
  • What do you hope to accomplish with this survey?
  • How will you use the data you are collecting?
  • What decisions do you hope to impact with the results of this survey? (This will later help you to identify what data you need to collect in order to make these decisions.)

2. Keep the survey short and focused

Both quality and quantity of response improve if an online survey is short and focused. It is generally better to focus on a single objective than try to create a master survey that covers multiple objectives.

Shorter surveys generally have higher response rates and lower abandonment rates among survey takers. It's human nature to want things to be quick and easy. Once a survey taker loses interest they simply abandon the task – leaving you to determine how to interpret that partial data set (or whether to use it all).

Make sure each of your questions is focused on helping to meet your stated objective. Don't toss in "nice to have" questions that don't directly provide data to help you meet your objectives. To be certain that the survey is short, time a few people taking the survey.

Research has shown that an online survey should take five minutes or less to complete. Six to ten minutes is acceptable, but abandonment rates are significant after eleven minutes.

3. Keep the survey questions simple

Make sure your questions get to the point, and avoid the use of jargon.

Try to make your questions as specific and direct as possible. Compare the following two questions:

  • What has your experience been working with our HR team?
  • How satisfied are you with the response time of our HR team?

4. Use closed-ended survey questions whenever possible

Closed-ended questions give survey takers specific choices (e.g. "Yes" or "No"), making it easier to analyse results. Closed-ended questions can take the form of yes/no, multiple choice or rating scale.

Open-ended questions allow people to answer in their own words. They are great supplemental questions and may provide useful qualitative information and insights. However, for collation and analysis purposes, closed-ended questions are preferable.

5. Keep rating scale questions consistent through the survey

Rating scales are a great way to measure and compare sets of variables. If you elect to use a rating scale (e.g. from 1 to 5), keep it consistent throughout the survey. Use the same number of points on the scale and make sure that meanings of high and low stay consistent throughout the survey. Switching your rating scales around will confuse survey takers, which will lead to untrustworthy responses.

Use an odd number of points in your rating scale to make data analysis easier.

6. Logical ordering

Make sure your online survey flows in a logical order. Begin with a brief introduction that motivates survey takers to complete the survey – for example, "Help us to improve our service to you. Please answer the following short survey."

Next, it is a good idea to start from broader-based questions and then move to those narrower in scope. It is usually better to collect demographic data and ask any sensitive questions at the end (unless you are using this information to screen out survey participants).

If you are asking for contact information, place that section last.

7. Pre-test your survey

Make sure you pre-test your online survey with a few members of your target audience and/or co-workers to find glitches and unexpected question interpretations.

8. Consider your audience when sending survey invitations

Recent statistics show that the highest open and click rates take place on Monday, Friday and Sunday. In addition, our research shows that the quality of survey responses does not vary from weekday to weekend.

That being said, it is most important to consider your audience. For instance, you should send employee surveys during the business week and at a time that is suitable for your business. So, if you are a sales-driven business, avoid sending to employees at month end when they are trying to close deals.

9. Consider sending several reminders

While not appropriate for all surveys, sending out reminders to those who haven't previously responded can often provide a significant boost in response rates.

10. Consider offering an incentive

Depending upon the type of survey and survey audience, offering an incentive is usually very effective in improving response rates. People like the idea of getting something for their time. Research has shown that incentives typically boost response rates by 50% on average.

One caveat is to keep the incentive appropriate in scope. Overly large incentives can lead to undesirable behaviour – for example, people lying about demographics to avoid being screened out from the survey.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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