Survey design is a crucial research method, providing a structured approach to gathering data and insights. Whether you’re an expert or a beginner in UX design, learning how to make an effective survey is crucial for finding valuable user insights, and it can be challenging regardless of your experience.
The essence of survey design is to create questions that gather specific information from a targeted group. When done right, it brings together psychology, language, and design to collect data on user preferences and behaviors.
Surveys help validate hypotheses, understand user needs, measure satisfaction, and guide product development. The key is to approach survey design thoughtfully to ensure that the data collected are reliable, valid, and actionable.
In this article, we’re going to explore the art and science of survey design, including how to avoid common pitfalls and master the creation of your own survey with detailed guidance.
UX researchers frequently misuse and misunderstand surveys, blurring the line between qualitative and quantitative methods and potentially embodying the negative aspects of both. Let’s go over where a survey can fall astray.
Cognitive bias can cause survey findings to seem more valid than they actually are thanks to the simplicity of creating and distributing surveys and tallying results. Many researchers rely on surveys because they’re cheap and easy to distribute. But surveys are just one of the many tools you should use for research. It’s crucial to use various research methods, including surveys, to get the whole picture of what users think and do.
Survey results often guide product teams in making critical decisions, but the inefficiency of surveys can lead to misguided directions. Again, surveys can’t be the only way you talk to users.
Crafting effective survey questions is challenging. Surveys that are poorly designed can produce misleading data, and it’s difficult to correct these errors once they occur.
Unlike other forms of user research methods, identifying a poorly constructed survey is tricky until the survey reveals contradictory information.
Let’s put this into a real-world context: imagine you’ve created a survey to understand how users feel about a new feature in your prototyped mobile app. You asked a question like, “How satisfied are you with our new feature?” and offered a scale from 1 (not satisfied) to 10 (very satisfied). The results come back and look wonderful, as most respondents rate their satisfaction at 4 or 5.
Then, after implementing the feature, you notice that user engagement with the app has dropped significantly, and there’s an increase in negative reviews mentioning the new feature. This contradictory information — high satisfaction scores vs. actual user behavior and feedback — flags that the survey might have been poorly designed.
What could have been the issue?
So, while the survey initially seemed fine, real-world user actions and comments revealed its flaws.
Survey responses are easy to count, giving an illusion of certainty and objectivity, even if the data is inaccurate. Some people may make mistakes with their responses, leave questions blank, or not even read your questions correctly.
We often use customer satisfaction surveys, but the data they generate may not accurately represent customer behavior or business success.
For instance, the NPS has been a long-standing metric of customer satisfaction, but it’s been under fire for misclassifying active promoters and detractors, among other issues. NPS is important, but consider other factors when evaluating customer experience and business health.
Secondary metrics that drive NPS, like churn rate, Customer Lifetime Value (CLV), and error rates in an app, give us a better understanding. By tracking these metrics, you can uncover areas to improve that businesses might overlook if they only concentrate on NPS.
One big mistake in survey design is the misalignment of question types and data needs. Unreliable data collection often occurs because designers present qualitative questions in a quantitative style.
For instance, a survey might ask respondents to rate the usability of an app on a numerical scale. But, this approach might make complex experiences and feelings seem too simple.
Instead, we could offer a text field where people can write about their experiences. This open-ended approach allows for more detailed feedback that a number rating alone can’t capture and gives us a clearer idea of what users think.
Aligning the question format with the type of insight you seek is crucial for gathering meaningful and actionable data in surveys.
Surveys frequently fail to offer the needed context for interpreting responses, particularly in the case of qualitative information. They can provide you numbers, but they can’t always provide the reasons behind them.
Using surveys is not always the answer. Before using them, evaluate if survey participants have the ability and willingness to provide truthful and accurate answers. If your survey responses consist mostly of qualitative data, observing human behavior is often more effective than relying on surveys to make decisions.
Due to the unreliability of responses, it is best to avoid asking survey participants to predict future behavior or recall distant past events, like which competitors they’ve interacted with in the past year.
UX designers often skip the research plan because of the rush of the product team. Taking the time to craft a research plan will pay back the effort. It will serve you as a guide to designing the survey questions well, as well as aligning your team on the goal.
Here’s a detailed list of what to include in your research plan:
Don’t skip this step!
We’ve covered the overarching issues with bad survey design. Now let’s take a closer look at transforming bad surveys. We’ll go through the most common issues you’ll see and teach you key survey design principles along the way. Here are some examples of common survey design mistakes:
Questions that nudge respondents toward a particular answer can skew results. To understand this, let’s analyze an example:
This is a leading question:
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied were you with the user friendly and efficient shopping cart experience on our website?” (1 = extremely dissatisfied, 9 = extremely satisfied)
Why is it leading? Two reasons:
How can we improve this question? Let’s make one that’s not leading:
“On a scale of 1 to 9, how would you rate your experience using the shopping cart on our website?” (1 = extremely dissatisfied, 9 = extremely satisfied)
And these are the reasons this phrasing is better:
Vague or unclear questions can confuse respondents, leading to unreliable data. Here’s an example of an ambiguous vs. unambiguous question:
The ambiguous question goes like this:
“How did you find the navigation on our website?”
Why is it ambiguous?
How can we improve this question? Let’s take a look at an unambiguous spin:
“On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate your experience with the search function on our website?” (1 = extremely dissatisfied, 5 = extremely satisfied)
Why is it unambiguous?
A survey that’s too long results in survey fatigue, causing respondents to rush through or abandon it altogether, which will affect the quality of your data. The perfect number of survey questions varies from case to case. However, a few factors can guide your decision:
These are some general guidelines for survey length
If you recognize these pitfalls, you can easily avoid the common traps undermine your survey’s effectiveness.
We’ve transformed your bad questions and given you pointers on preparing a survey that won’t be a flop. Let’s take it a step further and add a repertoire of good question types for your surveys.
Surveys can include a variety of question types, each serving a different purpose and tailored for specific kinds of information. Understanding these types is essential for crafting effective surveys. Here’s a rundown of some commonly used question formats.
MCQs present a list of predefined options from which respondents select one or more answers that best fit their response:
“What is your preferred method of communication? [ ] Email [ ] Phone [ ] Text”
They’re great for collecting direct, measurable data and for when the expected responses are known or predictable.
These questions enable respondents to indicate their level of agreement, satisfaction, or frequency using a specified scale, usually ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree” or “Never” to “Always.”
“On a scale from 1 (extremely unsatisfied) to 5 (extremely satisfied), how would you rate our customer service?”
Scales are useful for measuring attitudes, opinions, or behaviors where nuances in intensity or frequency are important.
Open-ended questions provide respondents with the opportunity to answer in their own words, unrestricted:
“What features would you like to see added to our mobile application?”
Open-ended questions are useful for gathering detailed, qualitative insights and for when exploring new areas where predefined answers might not capture the full range of responses.
Similar to rating scales, these questions ask respondents to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with a series of statements.
“I find the website easy to navigate. [ ] Strongly disagree [ ] Disagree [ ] Neutral [ ] Agree [ ] Strongly agree”
Likert scale questions are ideal for attitude and opinion surveys, especially for measuring the intensity of respondents’ feelings about a certain topic.
With ranking questions, respondents are asked to rank a list of items or options in order of preference or importance:
“Rank the following features in order of importance to you: [ ] Speed [ ] Cost [ ] Reliability [ ] Customer Service [ ] Privacy”
These are useful when you want to understand priorities or preferences among a set of options.
Demographic questions collect background information about respondents, such as age, gender, education level, etc.
“What is your age group? [ ] Under 18 [ ] 18-24 [ ] 25-34 [ ] 35-44 [ ] 45-54 [ ] 55+”
Demographic questions are essential for segmenting data and understanding the composition of your survey population. This type of question is commonly used for screening purposes as well.
Binary questions are a straightforward question type that require respondents to choose between two options, usually “Yes” or “No”:
“Have you used our online chat support? [ ] Yes [ ] No”
This type is best for questions that require a clear, binary decision, often used as screening questions.
We’ve taken your surveys for bad to basic, and now we’ll move on to great.
Designing an effective survey involves much more than just choosing the right questions. It’s about how you present those questions, ensuring that they are clear, engaging, and capable of gathering accurate responses. These best practices are going to build on your foundation of fundamentals and create surveys that unearth insights.
Ensure each question is easy to understand. Avoid jargon or technical terms unless they are. Remember: the average consumer is reading at an eighth-grade level.
For example, instead of asking, “What is your perception of the efficacy of our customer interface?,” ask, “How would you rate our customer service?”
Arrange questions in a logical order that feels natural to the respondent. This flow helps maintain the respondent’s interest and makes the survey feel like a coherent conversation.
Start with broad questions before delving into specifics about user experiences or opinions. We’ll talk more about this in the screener questions section below.
Choose button styles that are clear, intuitive, and visually distinct. Use diverse colors or shapes to differentiate between various actions, so that the buttons help reduce the likelihood of respondent errors.
An example of this is to use contrasting colors for “Submit” and “Cancel” buttons to avoid accidental responses:
Design your survey in a way where only necessary questions are visible at any given point; in other words, use progressive disclosure. This approach minimizes information overload and keeps respondents focused.
For instance, if a respondent indicates they have not used a particular feature, skip the questions related to the evaluation of that feature.
Begin with general, easy-to-answer questions to engage participants, and then progressively move toward more specific or sensitive topics. As an example, start with questions about general shopping habits before asking for detailed feedback on a specific purchase experience.
Make sure your survey is visually appealing and accessible, with a layout that is easy to navigate, especially on mobile devices.
Use larger fonts and buttons for mobile users and ensure color contrasts are strong for readability.
Test the survey with a small group from your target audience and ask for feedback on question clarity and survey length. If it’s not possible, conduct a peer review by asking one of your colleagues or experts in survey design to spot potential biases you might have missed.
Be transparent about how you will use the data you gather and ensure respondent privacy. Include a brief statement at the beginning of the survey explaining how the responses will be used and ensuring confidentiality.
If you incorporate these best practices, your survey will not only effectively capture the required information but also respect and maintain the interest and trust of your respondents.
A well-designed screener is necessary to identify suitable participants. It efficiently screens out individuals who don’t meet your criteria, saving time and ensuring study relevance. By using a good screener, you can ensure engaged and suitable participants, resulting in valuable research insights.
Here’s how you want to design your screener:
The screening questions may cover the participant’s contact information, demographic info, education, technical knowledge, availability, and other relevant details to find suitable respondents.
When it comes to finding participants, the internet is an invaluable resource, particularly for web applications or websites. Take advantage of high-traffic websites, email, and social media platforms to distribute your screener. To find participants from a specific geographic area, look into local community sites or professional networks.
Let’s turn theory into action with this simplified guide to survey design. With this and your comprehensive research plan, you should have a good framework for survey design to plug in your question types and avoid the pitfalls we’ve outlined.
Know what you want to learn from your survey. Be specific in your objectives, whether it’s understanding user opinions about a new app feature or their needs. Your research plan is going to come in handy here!
Identify who will be taking your survey. Customize your survey’s language and length to match your audience’s preferences and constraints. If you have someone at your company who invests in user research, or if your stakeholders want you to launch the survey, be sure to inquire with them about the target respondent!
Make sure each question is easy to understand and relevant to your goals. Use a mix of multiple-choice for specific answers and open-ended questions for detailed feedback, but avoid overloading with too many open-ended questions. Remember, survey fatigue will render results useless.
Design your survey to be eye-catching and user-friendly. Use pleasant colors and fonts, and ensure it’s easy to navigate on all devices, particularly mobile phones. If design isn’t your specialty, have someone at your company look it over.
Conduct a pilot test with a small audience. This helps you spot and fix any issues, like confusing questions or a survey that’s too long.
Release your survey to the full audience using channels like email, social media, or online recruiting platforms. When responses come in, look for trends and insights that can inform your decisions.
Use the insights from your survey to improve your product or service; iteration is key to design. Remember, surveys are ongoing tools for dialogue with your users, so continue refining and repeating as needed.
By following these steps, you can create surveys that gather useful data while being engaging and considerate of participants’ time.
The data collected from surveys can be a goldmine for improving user experience. Survey analysis could be its own topic, but here’s a summary of how you can leverage your data:
Make your surveys worth your time with this advice.
Header image source: IconScout
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