Best Practices for Building Web Surveys

Surveys are everywhere on the web. They pop up on web sites. Banners offer you “five bucks for five minutes.” Research companies solicit everywhere for people to be on their web panels.

The fact is, however, many surveys on the web are lousy. I know – I take them all the time. From the respondent’s point of view, they can be annoying, cumbersome, and downright frustrating.

And when the survey is bad from the respondent’s point of view, the data is probably useless. Bad surveys yield low response rates, unrepresentative samples, and incomplete questionnaires.

More and more, people are realizing that web surveys can be a great way to learn about their customers. That’s true. But they have to be built right.

Whether you are building a survey to pop up on your site, querying a panel through an established research company, or putting up a quick web survey through a company like Insight Express, there are some general guidelines that will help ensure that the survey is a success.

In an upcoming article, I will explore some of the technologies that make launching a survey user-friendly. But no matter what software you’re using, there are some basic principles of survey design that are the foundation for good research.

  • Questionnaires should be like a good poem. Include everything that needs to be there and nothing that doesn’t. Brevity is a golden virtue, especially on the Internet where everyone has the attention span of a modern three-year-old.

  • Questionnaires should be easy to complete. Best practices dictate that surveys should be tested for usability, just like a respectable web site. And don’t write like you did in graduate school – especially if you are querying a general audience. Think about the questions from the respondent’s point of view.
  • Participants should feel like they are taking part in something important. They have to feel that they are helping themselves or someone they care about. Offering an incentive is usually a good idea.
  • Questions shouldn’t bias the responses or lead to misinterpretation. Avoid using jargon, business-speak, and humor – people might take things the wrong way. And don’t make the mistake of asking questions like: “Do you find the site easy to use and attractive?” The respondent might want to pick one or the other.
  • Design the questionnaire to yield precise answers to all questions. Make sure you know exactly what you want to accomplish in the survey, and take care that the questions fit those objectives. At the same time, however, ensure that the questionnaire includes open-ended and “catch-all” questions where appropriate.

Web surveys are a booming business, and as more and more people realize what they can learn with them, we’ll see them popping up everywhere. To provide good information, however, they have to be built right.

Related reading