Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Effective Survey Design

Emily James

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Lucy Bridges

    Surveys are one of the staples of market research. Insight professionals have been designing surveys since market research first began, with the aim to get the best data possible. Surveys, along with focus groups, are one of the most discussed and most taught practices in market research, as such there are many guides out there on the internet on how to design surveys. What there isn’t a guide for, is how to make sure the survey you design is effective and impactful, capable of generating the right data at the right time.

    So how do we know whether we’re asking the right questions and designing an effective survey?

    Good Survey Design

    To answer that question, we first need to consider this: what exactly constitutes good survey design?

    The answer to that is relies on the relevance and the survey’s ability to generate the right data to fuel the right decisions. So how do we know a survey is effectively designed before it is distributed?

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    How do we know when we are asking the right questions and designing an effective survey? With some wisdom from Mark McCourt of the Redhill Group, we can start the journey to truly impactful survey creation.

    There is no sure-fire way of saying ‘yes, this survey will produce all the results we need’, but there are criteria we can work towards to give us the best chance of success:

    • Understand what decisions the survey results will inform before starting to write the survey.
    • Neutral wording directed to target audience (wording targeted here ensures respondents will clearly understand and respond well to the survey).
    • Figure out the right ways to organise survey questions for maximum impact.
    • Make sure your survey is the right length, filled with the right questions – if a survey is too long for your target audience, split it into smaller, manageable chunks.

    Mark McCourt is a Principal at the Redhill Group. McCourt provided some great insight into the survey design process, in particular commenting that “A novice can complete survey design in just a few hours while it takes an expert survey designer 2-3 days.” This is because more experienced insight professionals acutely understand the numerous ways a survey can fail to produce the right data – a novice does not know these ways; they only know how to build a survey that they hope will bring the results they need.

    Both of these are valid viewpoints, and valid experiences that can be implemented well in different situations. The experienced researchers can take the time to craft key surveys that will provide the most influential data for a research project, and novice researchers and even stakeholders can craft surveys to catch momentary glimpses into consumer opinion and trends to inform quick decisions.

    Often Overlooked Considerations

    While the list in the section above are the typical base considerations for survey design, there are a number of overlooked considerations, a couple of which I would like to bring your attention to now.

    Firstly, Mark McCourt explained that, “Knowing which questions should be left out of a survey is as important as knowing which questions to include.” While this might be an obvious consideration when stated aloud, there is typically more of a focus on what questions we need to include to get the right data, rather than what questions might be considered superfluous or negatively influence the data the survey generates. The ‘nice-to-know’ questions are usually the issue when it comes to this – whether novice or experienced, researchers are always prone to stumbling on these questions. When we put so much effort into something we become attached, so it’s hard to know where to trim the fat. Experienced researchers typically recognise when this sentiment is tripping them up, but it’s still an obstacle to hurdle.

    Another overlooked consideration is the accessibility and overall engagement of the survey. Is your survey as engaging as it can be? What could we do to craft engaging surveys that actively work to reduce dropout rates? In this blog, Annette Smith outlines three ways that could help insight professionals achieve this.

    The platform on which we send out the survey influences how the survey creation process for maximum engagement. So, another overlooked consideration is how we take the platform into account when we create surveys. Most survey guides are tailored to creating surveys on dedicated research platforms and can be sent out on social media or through respondent email lists, but what about when it comes to designing surveys that are sent to recipients through non-traditional methods, like chatbots or smart assistants? Chatbots, smart assistants and other non-traditional survey platforms have different needs, different considerations from insight professionals to help enhance survey engagement rates.

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    What are some of the overlooked or even forgotten considerations when it comes to survey design? These could be the difference between creating a good survey and a great one.

    Finally, what questions types do insight professionals want to use in each survey? Which question-types would help engage your target audience? There are a number of question types to choose from, and using a range of question types in a survey to keep participants from getting bored halfway through. More recently, the insight industry has been working on video integration within in surveys, which means as well as writing answers, participants can record their answers to some questions where a qualitative influence is needed to enhance the primarily quantitative data surveys tend to generate. What about video questions?

    How Important is Survey Design?

    Because surveys are a staple in market research, and there are many guides out in the world on how to create a good survey, there is a chance that survey design can be taken for granted. Survey design is important, which is why there are so many guides out there to help researchers and stakeholders across industries form the best understanding possible and get it right.

    It is the key to transforming a good survey into a great one, filled with the right questions, organised in the right structure and delivered in the right format to truly engage participants so insight teams can generate key data to inform decisions.

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