13 steps to craft better surveys

Start with the end in mind, give a range of options, and write to be understood.

13 steps to survey success

You want to know how well your company is serving customers, or if employees feel a part of the company. Or you want to know if customers loved that product you sell or had a good experience with service.

Surveys can be the answer, highlighting trouble spots and helping you fix them. Or surveys can just annoy the people you most want to hear from.

I have opinions based on my own experiences – for example, the bank that wanted to know if I thought it “cared” about me, the car dealer who hounds me for a review after a simple oil change. But I’ve also gone back to review some best practices while helping a client fine-tune a short survey. Here are some reminders:

1. Start with the end in mind.

What’s the purpose of your survey? Identify what you want to know and use a simple, specific goal to figure out the most important questions to ask. Hubspot gives an example:

  • Vague: “I want to evaluate employee satisfaction.”
  • More specific: “I want to understand what’s causing rapid turnover on teams who work with customers.”

2. Only ask about things you can (and will) act on.

As the Measurement Queen, Katie Paine, says, get “data that you can act on or that stops you from doing stupid stuff.” With each question, ask yourself what you’ll do if the answers show the company is “not very responsive” or people are unhappy. Don’t ask about something you can’t or won’t do anything to fix. (Hello, “caring” bank!)

3. Keep it short.

If your survey seems long, people are less likely to start it, let alone finish it. Nielsen Norman Group suggests “20 questions are too many unless you have a highly motivated set of participants,” and adds, “Every extra question reduces your response rate, decreases validity, and makes all your results suspect.” Answering up to 10 questions usually takes about five minutes. That’s about all the time a generous survey respondent will give you.

4. Write to be understood.

Use plain language and avoid technical jargon, says QualtricsXM. Keep sentences short, simple and easily understood.

5. Word your questions carefully.

Write neutral questions, not leading or biased ones.

  • Leading: “How helpful were our friendly customer service reps?”
  • Neutral: “How would you rate your experience with our customer service team?”

6. Ask one question at a time.

If you ask about two things in one sentence, people won’t know how to answer.

  • Red flag: “Which of these cell phone service providers has the best customer support and reliability?”
  • Green light: “Which of these cell phone service providers has the best customer support? Which has the best reliability?”

7. Give a range of options.

Give balanced options for answers to questions like “To what extent do you agree or disagree with [statement]?” – but not too many; what’s the difference between “somewhat” and “slightly”? Make sure there is a neutral midpoint.

  • Very helpful – Helpful – Neither helpful nor unhelpful – Unhelpful – Very unhelpful
  • Strongly disagree / Disagree / No opinion / Agree / Strongly agree

True/false or yes/no answers usually provide less informative data, so rephrase them if possible – but avoid scales that ask readers to agree or disagree, says QualtricsXM.

  • Avoid: True or false? Golf is a white-collar sport.
  • Rephrase: To what degree is golf a white-collar sport?

Also avoid absolutes like “always,” “all,” “every” – give options where it’s not so definite, like “sometimes,” “most times,” “rarely.” Other options that may be appropriate: “other,” “prefer not to answer” or “not applicable.”

8. Follow up.

Some surveys ask, “On a scale of 0 (not at all likely) to 10 (extremely likely), how likely are you to recommend [company/product/service] to a friend or colleague?” For these, follow up with “What are the main reasons for the score you gave?” or “How can we make your experience better?”

9. Consider more closed-ended questions.

Closed-ended questions like multiple choice are easier to answer, particularly if done on a cellphone. They’re also easier to analyze, says Constant Contact. Open-ended questions take longer to answer, so only include one or two at the end of the survey.

  • Closed-ended: What services do you use? a) massage b) hair stylist c) nails
  • Open-ended: What do you like about our salon?

10. Pay attention to the order of questions.

Group questions that cover similar topics. Start with the easy ones, put more complex ones in the middle, and end with personal/demographic questions. SurveyMonkey asks, “Would you start any exchange by asking someone how old they are? Probably not.”

11. Design for mobile.

If you’re sending your survey invitation by email, make sure the survey is easy to complete on a cellphone or tablet.

12. Explain yourself.

In your survey invitation, explain how long it should take, why you’re asking the questions and what you’ll do with the answers.

13. Test before you send.

Test your survey with a few colleagues before you send it. How long does it take? Does it collect the data you want? Are any questions confusing or repetitive? What did you miss? Edit the survey and test again. Nielsen Norman recommends testing first on paper to save time-consuming rework.

What’s your experience with surveys, either giving or taking? What questions make you shake your head?

Sue Horner is president of Get It Write.  Read more of Sue’s work on the Wordnerdery blog.


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