Pointers for an Effective Online Survey

So, you've decided to conduct an online survey. You have a few questions that you would like answered and need a fast and inexpensive way to learn more about your customers, clients, etc. The main thing you need to determine are the objectives of your study. Ensure that you can phrase these objectives as questions or measurements. If you can't, you are better off looking at other means of gathering data -- like focus groups and other qualitative methods. Online surveys tend to focus on "quantitative" data collection.

To get the most out of your survey and ensure you meet your objectives there are a number of steps that should be taken.

1. Review the basic objectives of the study. What are you trying to discover? What actions do you want to take as a result of the survey? This helps you double check the validity of the data collection mechanism. Online surveys are just one way of collecting and quantifying perspectives.

2. Visualize all of the relevant information items you would like to have. What will the output report look like? What charts and graphs will be prepared? What information do you need to be assured that action is warranted?

3. Rank each topic in items 1 and 2 according to the value of the topic. List the most important topics first. Revisit items 1 and 2 again to make sure the objectives, topics, and information you need are appropriate. Remember, you can't solve the problem if you ask the wrong questions.

4. How easy or difficult is it for the respondent to provide information on each topic? If it is difficult, is there another way to obtain the information by asking another question?

This is probably the most important step. Online surveys have to be precise, clear and concise. Due to the nature of the "Web" and the fickleness associated with it, if your questions are too complicated and are not easy to understand, you will have a high "drop out" rate.

5. Create a sequence for the topics that is unbiased. Make sure that the questions asked first do not bias the results of the next questions. Sometimes providing too much information, or disclosing the purpose of the study, can create bias.

Once you have a sequence of topics, you can build a basic layout of a survey. It is always prudent to add an "introductory" text to explain the project and what is required of the respondent. It is also professional to have an ending "thank you" text, as well as information about where to find the results of the survey when they are published.

6. Determine the type of question that is best suited to answer the question and provide enough robustness to meet analysis requirements. Do you use open-ended text questions, dichotomous, multiple choice, rank order, scaled, or constant sum (ratio scale) questions? There is a fine line you need to walk here -- generally, tougher analysis requirements will lead to more complicated questionnaire design. However, there are a couple of tools available to make life easier:

Page Breaks: Avoid having a huge scrolling survey. Introduce page breaks as necessary. Refrain, too, from just having one question per page. This increases the time to complete the survey as well as increases the chances for "drop outs."

Branching: Use branching and skip logic to make your surveys "smart." Try to avoid using text such as: "If you answered 'No' to Q1, then answer Q4." This causes respondent frustration and increases the "drop out" rate. Design the survey using branching logic so that the correct questions are automatically routed based on previous responses.

7. Write the questions. You may need to write several questions for each topic, selecting the best one. You might also be better off dividing the survey into multiple sections.

8. Sequence the questions so that they are unbiased.

9. Repeat all of the steps above to find any major holes. Are the questions really answered? Have someone else review it for you.

10. Time the length of the survey. A survey should take less than five minutes. At three to four questions per minute, you are limited to about 15 questions. One open-end text question counts for three multiple choice questions. Most online software tools will record the time taken for the respondents to answer questions.

11. Pretest the survey to 20 or more people. Obtain their feedback . . . in detail. What were they unsure about? Did they have questions? Did they have trouble understanding what you wanted? Did they take a point of view not covered in your answers or question?

12. Revise your online questionnaire incorporating the feedback that you received from you test group.

13. Send the survey out to all your potential respondents!

Online surveys can be a great alternative to expensive mail or telephone surveys. When properly written and presented you will obtain more information than you thought possible. Take the above suggestions to heart and you'll have a survey that's useful and effective and will provide your respondents with a positive experience.

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