Writing Effective Surveys: 12 Important Tips

Effective Surveys ensures the training data you gather is valid

Whether you are preparing a smile sheet to gather information about your staff’s reaction to the training or preparing tools for a needs assessment, create balanced questionnaire or effective surveys.

1 Avoid jargon (If you must use industry terms, define terms in brackets after the jargon).

2 Only ask what you need to know. Nice to know questions are not only annoying, they take respondents away from giving quality answers to critical questions.

3 Be careful when you ask for personal information, like age, marital status, and sex. Is it pertinent? Is it necessary? Is it legal? How many people will you annoy by asking?

4 Effective surveys have more general questions up front. The more sensitive the question, the later in the survey you should place it. Allow people time to warm up to the survey.

5 Watch out for literacy issues. What is the right reading level? MS Word can evaluate the reading level. A survey of any kind may not be effective.

6 Explain briefly why you are asking people to take the survey. If you can, tell the respondents later what the results were or how the info changed how the company now operates or trains.

7 Make sure you have provided all possible answers to closed questions.

8 Ensure answer options do not overlap if you only want one answer.

9 An effective survey requires clear instructions. Do you want people to check one? Select all that apply? Rate in order of importance? Test the survey if you’re using software to ensure your instructions match the specifications. For example, if you want people to select one, ensure that question only allows one answer from the list.

10 Effective surveys ask only a couple of open-ended questions. Place these questions from mid-way to the end of the survey.

11 Test your survey a few times with the *target* group. It doesn’t matter if the technicians at the help desk can read your software training questionnaire if it is meant for the finance department to complete. An effective survey works for a specific audience.

12 Surveys should be used in concert with other means, such as observation and interviews. A conversation will always glean deeper, more detailed information.

These tips sound simple. But please test your survey. Or have someone like me create or at least review it. They can ensure your data will be useful we can properly phrase and format interval, semantic differential, and rank order scale questions, checklists, etc.

I’ve seen so many really bad smile sheets and needs assessment questionnaires. Do yourself a favour. Make sure your data can help improve your business’ training program which leads to higher productivity and a better bottom line.

16 Comments

  1. Cathy Taughinbaugh on February 18, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Hi Catherine,

    A balanced questionnaire will give the information you are looking for and it is worth it to take the time to do a thorough job, so that you can get the information that you seeking. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Lorrie on February 18, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Very good advice by every measure. I was a community organizer for several decades and conducted many community survey. One of the most important things we did was return a summary of the results back to the community surveyed. Making people feel heard helped motivate them toward positive change.

  3. Alexandra McAllister on February 18, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Excellent post and advice, Catherine. Creating a balanced questionnaire is key! Thank you for the tips! I especially like “#11 Test your survey a few times with the *target* group.”

  4. Martha Giffen on February 18, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Good advice. Especially testing. So few do it and it is SO valuable.

  5. Carolyn Hughes on February 18, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    You always offer such sound and practical advice Catherine. Thank you!

  6. Aimee on February 18, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    You should consult with Infusionsoft! They sent me a survey last week that told me it would take 10 minutes. It was soo mind-numbingly long and boring and every page had like 30 items on to rate no a scale of 0-10, that I ended up for the last 5 pages or so just clicking 0 on every single item so I could get my $10 amazon card and not waste the 15 minutes I had already spent. In this case, I stopped giving them useful information and would have skewed their results. I am CERTAIN that most of the information was nice to know, and so many of the questions were so similar and monotonous that I felt abused by the offer. Not impressed!

  7. Lisa Birnesser on February 19, 2013 at 2:53 am

    Great post, Catherine.These are great guidelines to make sure the team hits higher productivity and income. Thanks!

  8. Norma Doiron @Explode Your Business ONLINE! on February 19, 2013 at 5:22 am

    Something I have yet to try so appreciate the great tips you have here. Taken notes! Thanks.

  9. MamaRed on February 19, 2013 at 5:39 am

    Oh, love that you’ve shared very specific options for creating a survey that works and is, as much as possible, giving you information you can use. As someone who had a marketing research minor in college, I’m rather “jaded” by some of the questions I see on surveys. I love what Aimee said about InfusionSoft…making it so mindnumbingly long that there is no way on this green earth that the results can truly provide what they really need to make improvements or changes. Yes! It’s been long time since I’ve seen something on writing surveys and you made points I had never considered. Thanks oodles.

  10. Moira Hutchison on February 19, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Excellent advice here Catherine – Thanks! Of course, the better the writing of the survey questions, the better the feedback – your advice is perfectly timed for me as I’m about to put out a market research survey.

  11. Simona on February 19, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    As you pointed, testing your survey before it goes out is very important. Even testing outside of the target-group. Somebody else than the creator of the survey may be able to catch mistakes the author may oversee.

  12. Carl Mason-Liebenberg on February 20, 2013 at 2:23 pm

    These are great tips! I have thought often conducting a survey and this gives me the guidelines to do it right!

  13. Lisa Frederiksen - BreakingTheCycles.com on February 20, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Wonderful advice – thank you for sharing these tips, Catherine. These kinds of surveys can then be used to build outcomes of one’s programs for their next effort.

  14. elizabeth maness on February 23, 2013 at 4:44 am

    Catherine, theses are great facts about finding out what people really want and where you could improve. I like the don’t use industry terms because I am so guilty of this. I try really hard when I’m writing and consulting to not do that but I slip here and there!

  15. Sharon O'Day on February 23, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Great combination of do’s and don’t do’s … where the quality of your responses is so dependent on the quality (and scope)of your questions! Thanks, Catherine!

  16. Manon Pelletier on March 30, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    I didn’t know my survey could be improved. I’ll be in touch to get your feedback. Well written and thought provoking blog!

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