The most important step to survey writing

      2 Comments on The most important step to survey writing

Courtesy DS-photo on pixabay

Courtesy DS-photo on pixabay


Last week, I wrote a post about eliminating bias in decision-making, and introducing the topic of using surveys to help inform decisions. At the end of the post, I addressed the fact that writing surveys is a difficult thing to do, promising follow-on posts with tips for writing better surveys. This week, we’re kicking off the series with the first, absolutely most important step to survey writing. While the most important, it can also be the most overlooked step.

The single most important step to writing a good survey is…

Any guesses?

Keeping it short? Nope.

Getting the right audience? Related, but no.

Avoiding leading language in questions? Good…but again, no.

Here it is: establishing razor-sharp focus on the purpose of your survey.

Why is focus so important?

If you’ve worked in market research for any amount of time, you know how easy it is to start with a broad scope and end up with a 45-minute survey. The result of such a survey is inevitably low response rates, resulting in a sample size too small to really understand your audience. It’s like deciding to go to school, without any idea what you’re going to study. Sure, you could take that approach, and you could take lots of really fascinating courses, but in the end, without a specific goal in mind, you’ll end up with a lot of money spent on gathering a lot of information, part-way to a degree in a variety of fields, but not having fulfilled the full set of requirements for any particular degree. The same thing happens with surveys without a clear purpose: you’ll spend a lot of money and time creating the survey, gathering information, but trying to distill that information into a cohesive story about your audience may very well end up so difficult to do that you have to do follow-up studies to fill in the blanks.

A clear, concise research purpose will naturally result in more focused surveys (read: shorter surveys) and knowing who your target respondent audience should be.

A caveat here: I’ve been through a number of research projects that started with a clear, concise research purpose, then expanded as stakeholders decided to add tangential purposes to the study. For example, a simple, high-level customer satisfaction study can easily and quickly become a long, drawn-out study with sections asking about satisfaction with individual business units included. It’s completely natural for a survey to expand and include other items. It’s as though when someone hears that a survey is being crafted, they’re worried that this is the one and only time you’ll ever be reaching out to your customers, so you’d better include as much as possible in this one survey! However, it’s a better experience for you, the researchers, and your respondent audience if you make the decision to keep the survey focused, and realize that surveying your audience more than once is fine — as long as each survey is a good survey experience, meaning it’s short, sweet, and to the point each time.

How can I be sure my research purpose is focused?

Below, I’ve listed examples of research purposes that started out broad, then the same purpose refined for a narrower focus.

  • I want to know what my customers are thinking.
    • I want to know if my customers are likely to purchase my new product line.
  • I want to know my customers’ satisfaction levels.
    • I want to know my customers’ satisfaction with our customer service team.
  • I want to know how much screen time is appropriate.
    • I want to know how much screen time on mobile devices is appropriate for children ages 3-7.
  • I want to know what messaging I should use.
    • I want to know what messaging I should use for current customers regarding my current offering.
    • I want to know what messaging I should use to attract new customers to my current offering.

If you aren’t sure if your research purpose is focused enough or not, try it out with a few colleagues. Test is out to see how they respond to it; do they ask for clarifying questions? Then it probably means you need to clarify your research purpose.

I’ve narrowed my survey purpose — now what?

Next week, we’ll look at some tips on crafting questions for your survey. Leave me a comment and let me know your questions about survey design!

2 thoughts on “The most important step to survey writing

  1. Pingback: Writing unbiased survey questions | MRXplorer

  2. Pingback: Survey design tip: who’s your audience? | MRXplorer

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