Writing Good Surveys, Part 6: Tips for the form of the survey

Doug Peterson HeadshotPosted By Doug Peterson

In this final installment of this series, we’ll take a look at some tips for the form of the survey itself.

The first suggestion is to avoid labeling sections of questions. Studies have shown that when it is obvious that a series of questions belong to a group, respondents tend to answer all the questions in the group the same way they answer the first question in the group. The same is true with visual formatting, like putting a box around a group of questions or extra space between groups. It’s best to just present all of the questions in a simple, sequentially numbered list.

As much as possible, keep questions at about the same length, and present the same number of questions (roughly, it doesn’t have to be exact) for each topic. Longer questions or more questions on a topic tend to require more reflection by the respondent, and tend to receive higher ratings. I suspect this might have something to do with the respondent feeling like the question or group of questions is more important (or at least more work) because it is longer, possibly making them hesitant to give something “important” a negative rating.

It is important to collect demographic information as part of a survey. However, a suspicion that he or she can be identified can definitely skew a respondent’s answers. Put the demographic information at the end of the survey to encourage honest responses to the preceding questions. Make as much of the demographic information optional as possible, and if the answers are collected and stored anonymously, assure the respondent of this. If you don’t absolutely need a piece of demographic information, don’t ask for it. The more anonymous the respondent feels, the more honest he or she will be.

Group questions with the same response scale together and present them in a matrix format. This reduces the cognitive load on the respondent; the response possibilities do not have to be figured out on each individual question, and the easier it is for respondents to fill out the survey, the more honest and accurate they will be. If you do not use the matrix format, consider listing the response scale choices vertically instead of horizontally. A vertical orientation clearly separates the choices and reduces the chance of accidentally selecting the wrong choice. And regardless of orientation, be sure to place more space between questions than between a question and its response scale.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on writing good surveys. I also hope you’ll join us in San Antonio in March 2014 for our annual Users Conference – I’ll be presenting a session on writing assessment and survey items, and I’m looking forward to hearing ideas and feedback from those in attendance!

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