Survey Best Practices

Philip Cleave
June 17, 2024
Man using best practice advice to plan his next survey

From the initial design of your survey and the choice of questions to the distribution and reporting of results, ensuring best practices are followed can significantly enhance the value of the data you collect. While having the right survey software is essential, having best practice advice to guide you through the key stages of your survey journey is equally valuable. This will help you maximize the value you gain from it and the data it generates. Here’s an overview of some best practices to consider before the writing, creation and launch of your next survey.

Survey design best practices

Given the sheer volume of research and surveys in circulation, your survey needs to stand out and appeal to your target audience to generate the response and quality of data you need. Your survey design is crucial. It can literally make or break your survey’s completion rate. Many respondents may be unwilling to engage if your survey looks confusing or time-consuming. So, having top-level survey design best practices in mind during the planning stage is essential.

Set your survey’s goal and objectives

While it may sound obvious, some businesses create and send out surveys without being fully clear about their goals. Without clarity, it will be challenging to identify what you should be measuring and the value of your answers. Your survey goals clarify your overall long-term aims, while your objectives break these down into the actions or steps needed to achieve them. Clear goals and objectives keep your survey organized and focused, ensuring your questions are relevant and likely to generate the answers you need for actionable decisions.

Give your survey a strong introduction

To maximize your response rate, you need to grab the attention of your respondents. One of the best tools for this is your survey introduction. Clearly state 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. This can encourage and reassure them about completing your survey.

Keep things clear and concise

With limited respondent time, your survey needs to be clear and concise. While the length can depend on your audience and subject matter, generally, the shorter, the better. Many participants are unwilling to spend more than ten minutes on a survey. When planning your questions, think about how you’ve worded them. Could you phrase them more succinctly? Ensure every question is relevant to your goals. Irrelevant questions can easily put respondents off. Consider including a progress bar to reassure respondents as they progress through your survey, helping reduce dropout rates.

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 well-presented is likely to achieve a much higher engagement rate than one that appears hastily assembled. Paying attention to layout, fonts, and colors can help engagement. Using sophisticated features such as white labeling and custom CSS can take your survey to the next level by completely replicating your brand.

Question choice best practices

During the survey writing stage, when it comes to the types of survey questions you should be using, there’s a lot to consider. From closed and open questions, multiple-choice and matrix questions to demographic and dichotomous questions. Each question type has its uses, advantages, and disadvantages, but your choice will be primarily influenced by your survey’s overall objective. Before you start survey writing, here are some general best practices to consider.

Provide more closed-ended than open-ended questions

Generally, you’ll want to include more closed-ended than open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions, which collect quantitative data, are easier to analyze and quicker for respondents to answer, reducing the likelihood of survey abandonment. In contrast, open-ended questions provide valuable qualitative insights but take longer to complete.

Keep your survey questions neutral

When survey writing, keep questions as neutral as possible to avoid bias. Leading questions can be damaging to the validity of your survey, as their wording can influence answers that do not accurately reflect respondents' true feelings.

Maintain a balanced set of answer choices

Think carefully about the answer choices you provide to avoid bias. For example, when drafting questions for a customer service survey, offer a full range of both positive and negative options. This will give you a true idea of what customers think, rather than skewed feedback.

Avoid asking for two things at once

Double-barrelled questions, where respondents are asked to assess two things simultaneously, can cause confusion and result in unhelpful data. For instance, “How would you rate our customer service and product performance?” Customer service and product performance are separate subjects, so asking both at the same time fails to address either effectively.

Make sure your questions are different from one another

Repeatedly asking similar questions can frustrate respondents, leading them to abandon your survey or provide unhelpful straight-line answers. Check all your questions carefully to ensure they are distinct before launching your survey.

Test drive your survey

Testing your survey with colleagues, friends, and family before distribution can help identify mistakes and potential biases. Fresh eyes can provide objective reviews and help you make necessary corrections, ensuring your survey is ready for respondents.

Survey distribution best practices

After the survey creation phase is completed, the survey distribution stage will prove as important to your survey success as your design and question choices. If you can’t effectively engage your audience, you’ll struggle to get the volume of responses you need. Here are some best practice tips to help maximize your engagement.

Use the most appropriate survey distribution method for your audience

Consider the demographics and characteristics of your target audience. Younger demographics might be more responsive to surveys sent by SMS, social media, or QR codes, while older audiences might prefer email or embedded survey links. Always keep the age of your audience in mind to increase your chances of engagement.

Tell them about your survey in advance

For certain groups, such as long-term customers or employees, it can be helpful to let them know a survey is coming. This builds anticipation and gets participants in the right mindset, ready to respond when the survey arrives.

Reassure respondents before they take your survey

Assurances about data privacy and the purpose of the survey can significantly impact participation and completion rates. Clearly state any personal questions or identifiable information required, so respondents know what to expect.

Send reminders

Respondents may not complete your survey immediately, so send reminders. It's acceptable to send multiple reminders if they are spaced out reasonably. Reminders can significantly improve your response rate.

Follow up on your feedback

Beyond the initial survey thank you message, always follow up with respondents about the feedback they provided. Closing the feedback loop shows respondents that you value their input and intend to act on it. This encourages future participation and builds trust.

Survey reporting best practices

Once you’ve gathered, analyzed, and interpreted survey feedback, effectively communicating your findings is crucial. Here are some tips for reporting on survey results.

Your report introduction

Known as the executive summary, this should explain the survey’s purpose and provide context for the information presented. Make it strong, as some people will only read this part.

Focus on key facts first

Engage your audience by communicating the survey’s most crucial findings first. Highlight key drivers, trends, and patterns that will capture their interest and encourage them to read on.

Communicate your results

Detail your survey results, highlighting any interesting trends or patterns. Categorize and group similar data to show relationships, and use headings and subheadings to break up the information. Don’t forget to include the impact of your findings on your audience.

Use visualizations to tell your story

Visuals like pie charts, bar graphs, and word clouds can effectively communicate your survey findings. They keep things interesting and help illustrate key points clearly.

Report conclusion and recommendations

At the end of your report, provide a conclusion that summarizes key takeaways and offers recommendations for next steps. This helps ensure your audience understands the significance of your findings and knows what actions to take.

Overarching best practices

Effective planning is crucial to optimizing the delivery and success of your survey. Continually refer back to your objectives to keep your survey focused and on track.

Make your survey accessible

Maximize your chances of survey success by making it accessible to everyone. Consider accessibility issues, as one in five people may have a disability. Use accessible survey themes, add alt text to images, and ensure surveys can be navigated without a mouse and keyboard. This inclusivity makes your survey easier to use for everyone.

Author's note: this blog was originally published June 2022 and updated June 2024

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