Effective Survey Design: How to Avoid Garbage In/Garbage Out

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Posted Aug 24, 2011

Creating an effective survey takes a lot of fine-tuning. If you’re a musician, even a great one, you cannot create great music if your instrument is out of tune. The same concept applies to surveys; not even the greatest market researcher can garner effective data with an ineffective, or out-of-tune instrument (in this case, your questionairre). To make sure your instrument is in-tune and your survey is effective, you need to make sure it is short, simple and professional.

Keep it Short

Put yourself in the survey-taker’s shoes. When you sit down to take a survey and it drags on and on for an hour, you start to feel bored and uninterested. You might start to only read the first two answer choices, or browse the question instead of really reading it. You might just skip certain questions altogether, or pick random answers without reading. So how do you avoid this? A general rule among many market researchers is to keep your survey time under 20 minutes. However, 15 minutes is better than 20 minutes, 10 minutes is better than 15 minutes, and 5 minutes is better than 10 minutes.The shorter your survey takes to complete, the more respondents are likely to sign up and actually complete it. People value their time, so not many people will agree to give up an hour of their lives answering questions to help your company. And even if they do agree, the likelihood that they’ll get bored or distracted increases by every additional minute you tack onto the survey completion time.

survey respondent

Keep it Simple

Respondents don’t just get bored with long surveys – they also get bored with complicated ones. Your survey might only have ten questions, but if they’re so difficult to understand that respondents have to read each one three times, you’ve just tripled the completion time.An obvious mistake to avoid is creating questions that are too wordy. You want your survey to sound conversational, so that respondents will immediately know what you mean. They shouldn’t need to re-read or get out the thesaurus to decipher your questions. Another common misstep is to avoid making your respondents work too hard. For example, you should generally avoid questions that ask your respondents for a specific answer they’d need to physically find. Instead of asking them to find the receipt from their latest clothing purchase, try giving them a few range options. So instead of saying, “Take a look at your receipt from your latest clothing purchase – how much did you spend?” where the respondent would have to search for their receipt or just guess (or, to be honest, just quit the survey), try something like, “On your latest clothing purchase, did you spend: less than $20, $21-$35, $36-50, $50+”

Keep it Professional

Yes, your survey should be conversational, but it also needs to be professional. This doesn’t mean you need to search for big, impressive words to use, but just that it should be well written and free of errors. Make sure to double-check your spelling and grammar throughout the survey, and make sure to read it as if you were the respondent. You should also try to avoid questions that are too intrusive. People are very wary these days of scams and companies just looking to generate leads. If you ask too many personal questions (income, net worth, contact info) people will wonder whether you actually want their opinion or if you’re just trying to sell them something.

Keep it Short, Simple, Professional

Creating an effective survey will maximize your responses, minimize dropouts, and leave your survey respondents happy. So make sure that you keep your audience in mind when you create your survey so that it works like a fine-tuned instrument.Photo Credit: Test Taker from Flickr

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