Survey design tip: choosing survey software

You’ve finally reached a point where you’re ready to dive into programming your survey. If you don’t already have survey software you’ve used in the past (or if you’re looking to renew a license and exploring options), this step can feel pretty daunting as you try to figure out the best price for the features available. Here are some tips to help you decide which you should use.

Survey software decisions

I used to work for a survey software company, and I had the opportunity to test MANY other software products to get an idea what they were offering and at what price points. I did a number of free trials, attended free training sessions when I could, and generally got to get an idea of how competitive this particular part of the market research industry happens to be. Having also had the opportunity in a former role to evaluate survey software so I could determine what to purchase for my organization, I can also tell you that survey software today has evolved dramatically from what I purchased about 10 years ago.

A caveat: I’m not going to recommend any particular survey software. The software you should use really depends on what you need to get from it. From question types to fielding options to reporting to security, there are definite differences among platforms, and choosing one over another really depends on your needs and your budget. Not only that, the offerings and prices change so quickly in this industry now that my recommendation today for your particular set of needs might not be the same as my recommendation in another six months.

Instead, I’d like to present you a list of questions that I believe are handy to ask yourself, your organization, and the survey software companies you’re investigating. Some of these might seem obvious, and others might not. My hope is this will help you sort out what you need versus what you might think is a cool feature, but one you’ll never actually use.

Free licenses versus paid licenses

A quick online search for “survey software” will return a bevy of results. Most, if not all, survey software companies offer free trials and free licenses. Generally speaking, a free license will get you:

  • limited number of questions per survey – somewhere around 10 seems to be the norm.
  • limited number of question types available.
  • limited number of responses you can collect per survey.
  • limited fielding options.
  • limited formatting options.
  • limited reporting options.

Many online survey software companies have tiered licensing models, meaning the more you pay, the more access you have to the various feature sets. While it may seem daunting to go testing all of the various tools, here are some questions you can ask up front to help narrow down the options.

The questions to ask before – and during – the evaluation period

These questions are not entirely exhaustive, but taking the time to review them will not only help you evaluate what your needs actually are in the first place (because all those bells and whistles can seem amazing, but it might turn out you only need the software to do a few things for you), they will also help you as you talk to the sales teams about the software.

  • How many people are going to be using the software? Some companies offer a per-person license fee; others offer a license for up to 3 or 5 people, then charge per additional user.
  • How many questions types are you going to need? The most traditional types are the single-choice, multiple-select, open-ended, and simple matrices (multiple rows with the same set of answer options per row). You might need to pay extra for question types like a slider scale (the type that lets you slide a marker to select your answer) and image upload questions, and even more for advanced features like conjoint analysis.
  • What kinds of logic do you need for your surveys? Basic types of logic such as a basic skip logic (which lets respondents skip questions that might not apply to them) might be included in a free license, or might be included in one of the lower license levels, but logic such as randomly showing a set of questions to respondents, showing or hiding responses or questions based on answers earlier in the survey, and even advanced skip logic which lets you skip questions based on answers to multiple earlier questions are likely to cost more. This is where a free trial is definitely worth your while, as you might want to play around with the different logic types, evaluate the types of surveys you’re going to be doing, and determine what kinds of logic would make the most sense for you to have.
  • How many questions are your surveys typically going to be? This might be tricky. Most novice survey programmers don’t realize that a 10-question survey might actually be a 15- or 20-question survey when it’s actually programmed. It looks like 10 questions to the respondent, but the logic or the way the survey software works might mean you’re programming more questions than the respondent is actually going to see.
  • How many responses do you expect to receive in any given time period? Some survey software companies charge per response; others cap the number of responses you can get per survey; yet others cap the number of responses you can get for all of the surveys in your account combined.
  • Is any kind of training offered? Even if you’re familiar with one type of software, every survey platform is slightly different from the others, and getting training can reveal tips and tricks you otherwise might not know about. Most companies offer at least a free webinar where they give a free overview of their software. Take advantage of these – you’ll see the bells and whistles (after all, they want to show you as much as possible about the software to grab your interest). Hopefully, you’ll also have the chance to ask questions during the presentation. Some companies have a page on their site with lists of upcoming webinars that you can review to check out what they also might offer beyond the software training, and others offer paid training for the software. Having conducted training for survey software before, I can attest to the fact that even long-time users of software can end up learning something new when they take advantage of the available training options.
  • What kind of multimedia support is available? Again, try to get an idea of what your surveys might include. Are you likely to want to do some kind of image testing, ad testing, video testing? What about just including your organization’s logo on the surveys?
  • What kind of survey testing is available? More and more people are not just accessing but taking surveys on their mobile devices, and you absolutely want to be certain that your survey is not only working, but rendering well and easy to take on any number of devices, from iPhones to Android smartphones to tablets. Some companies offer the ability to see your survey on a mock screen; others offer the ability to send anyone the link for them to test — and then, extremely importantly, the ability to clear out all that test data so it doesn’t interfere with the actual data collection.
  • What kinds of fielding options are available? You might want to have your survey on a tablet in a conference – and many companies offer mobile versions of their software, but some offer it as a separate license than the online version of the software. You might want to run a text survey; you might want to use a QR code on a business card to deliver your survey; you might need to embed your survey on your website; you might just need a link that you can share on social media. However you anticipate distributing your survey, make sure the company offers that ability.
  • What kinds of security options are available? Speaking of data collection – the last thing you want is for your survey to end up in the hands of someone who is using a bot. This can easily happen if you’ve embedded a survey on a web page. To avoid that, some companies offer everything from password protection to Captcha to help you make sure that only the people you want to be taking your survey are taking it.
  • What kind of reporting do you need? This question doesn’t just include whether the software offers bar charts or line charts; it also includes whether the software allows you to export data at a question-level, respondent-level, or only at the survey level (you can only get the survey for the entire report, not just specific sections). Some companies offer single-level filters on reports in a free license, and multi-level filters at a premium, but it’s worth checking this part out, as this is what you will be using when it comes to doing data analysis. Also check what the export options are for reports: can you easily export raw data? What about banner tables/cross tabulations?

Parting advice

Another tip for this process: have a sample survey that is similar to the majority of surveys you’re going to be running. As you sign up for trials of the software, use that survey to test the capabilities. Do some mock scenarios: your boss asks you for a report on progress mid-way through the survey fielding period; another group has asked you for data particular to one set of questions; you need a snapshot report that you can get once a week to monitor your ongoing customer satisfaction study. These will also help you determine if the survey software you’re testing will meet all your potential needs.

Are there any other questions you think should be added to this list? What other survey design questions do you have? Leave me a comment and let me know!

1 thought on “Survey design tip: choosing survey software

  1. Ivana S Taylor

    WOW! This is about the MOST thorough list on how to choose a survey software that I’ve ever seen. I think you’ve covered just about every point. Almost all survey software providers offer some kind of free trial or option and I would recommend taking them up on that.

    Create a brainstormed list of surveys that you actually run using the different pieces of software and see which you prefer. Don’t let price be the primary driver of your choice. Figure out what’s most important to you and choose the software that delivers the best value.

    I learned this the hard way by committing to one software too soon and realized that it was REPORTING that was most important to me – and the software I chose wasn’t really that good at reporting or sharing data with my clients.

    Thanks for writing this great article.


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