Survey Design & Outreach Tips

12 Best Practices in Survey Design to Boost Response Rates and Get Quality Data

June 17, 2022
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Survey Tips

Around 80% of respondents do not complete a survey till the end. Some of the issues are in poor design, survey fatigue, and lack of motivation.

But with a well-designed survey that also meets accessibility standards, you’ll get your response rates much higher than estimated. There are many tips and tricks for making a good survey, so here is the gist of it: 12 best practices in survey design based on the decades of academic research and practice here at Maptionnaire.

What Makes a Good Survey?

Digital survey tools are a goldmine for community specialists, city planners, HR, and other professionals that want to hear from a group of people on a specific subject. You get digitized data that is easier to standardize and analyze while reaching participants via digital channels is much more effective. Even during in-person community meetings, digital participatory tools are commonly used.

Read more tips about using online surveys for community engagement workshops. 

A good online survey: 

  1. Makes the goal of the questionnaire clear to respondents 
  2. Gives an estimate of completion time
  3. Provides the survey owner with relevant data 
  4. Is easy to set up and exciting to answer 
  5. Is concise and accessible for respondents 
  6. Uses various questions and visuals.

And yet another thing: if you’re operating in the EU or collecting data of EU residents, you have to comply with GDPR. If in doubt, check this article on how to make GDPR compliant surveys.

In any case, the secret of a good survey is in a solid design process, so let’s get to it.

The Best Practices in Survey Design

1. Start the survey design from the end 

Sounds counterintuitive? Absolutely. But starting your survey design process from the end (that is, you need to figure out the results you want to get) will ensure your questionnaire is consistent and relates to your goal.

So before drafting that first question, ask yourself:

  • What is the information that you are seeking? 
  • What will the end data be used for? 
  • What format should it preferably be in? Numerical, qualitative, or geolocated data?

Knowing this will help you a great deal in choosing the right survey questions and content.

For example, open questions are often burdensome to analyze. You might not want to add too many of them, especially if you expect to get a lot of responses.

However, if your goal is to gather a more qualitative dataset, you can try coupling multiple choice questions with additional questions. This way you will still get deep insights but in a more structured way.

If you want to make classifications, for example, based on respondent age groups, it’s easier to have respondents choose which age group they belong to rather than ask for their age individually with an open number field. 

Also, asking many questions with one open field might get messy. For example, it’s a good idea to ask for people’s email, address and phone number with separate fields than with just a single question: “Please write your email, address and phone number in the box”.

2. Motivate respondents to participate

It is beneficial to provide the respondents a motivation to participate. This can be done by explaining your goals and why it’s important that they answer. 

For example, include information about your project and how the gathered data will be utilized on the front page of the questionnaire. You can also organize a prize draw among respondents to nudge people to answer.

3. Apply a clear structure

Try to keep your questionnaire compact and its structure clear. Use titles and small captions to guide respondents through the survey. Keep respondents informed about how they are proceeding by adding page numbers on questionnaire pages

It is good to start with easier questions to make respondents feel more comfortable and move on to more complicated questions later on. Also, cluster background questions, preferably at the very end of the survey.

4. Be short and sweet as it’s (almost) always better 

You are more likely to get more answers and better completion rates if your survey is not overly long. This is relevant both for the survey as a whole and for individual questions. But of course, don’t compromise on the quality and clarity of your survey.

a screenshot of the best practices in survey design: hiding extra info behind the click
In this survey, the instructions are hidden behind the click to avoid visual clutter.

But sometimes it’s impossible to avoid longer chunks of texts, such as a privacy policy or further information on the research project. Because to have a good survey, you need to be transparent and compliant!

And there is an elegant way out of this problem.

You can always ‘hide’ a longish text in a pop-up behind a click if you’re using Maptionnaire to design surveys. In this way, the text is present and those who’re interested can easily access it. At the same time, it won’t create unnecessary clutter.

5. Avoid jargon and official language in your survey 

Keep the language simple and easy to understand. If you are asking for public opinion, you should use the language the public is familiar with! 

It’s hard to figure out how to unwrap a very specific term in plain language. What can help is checking discussion groups on Facebook or Reddit where you can pick up on how your future participants speak about certain topics.

Also, check the readability of your questionnaire (which refers to the previous principle of a good survey). The readability level indicates how difficult it is to understand a text. For English, the Flesch-Kincaid readability test is the most optimal (here you can check your survey questions for free). Aim for the 8th or 9th-grade readability level, but always have your audience in mind. 

6. Remember to make your survey accessible to all 

The tool that you use for your survey should be compliant with accessibility directives. Since accessibility is important for Maptionnaire, we adhere to both the EU Accessibility Directive and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1), where we have AA-rating. Read more about our accessibility compliance here.  

There are also ways in which you can make sure that your survey is as accessible as possible: 

  • Include an alternative description (alt-text) of the content for people using screen readers. 
  • Don’t use just color or a position on the screen to indicate something. That is, “click on a green button saying ‘Done’ in the right upper corner” is much better than “click on a green button” or “click on a button in the right upper corner”.
  • Use enough contrast when, for example, layering shapefiles on top of a basemap.
  • It’s also a good idea to provide alternatives to text-only answers. In Maptionnaire, you can use images as answer options, allow respondents to submit their own images and voice messages, or include audio and video clips in your surveys.

7. Ask clear and simple questions

One of the biggest pitfalls are misunderstandings. So pay extra attention when formulating your questions. 

A common mistake is to ask several things within one question: “Are the houses beautiful and their surroundings well-maintained?”. One question = one answer.

Also, avoid questions that can be understood in many ways, such as: “Where do you typically come to this area from?” In this case respondents might wonder if you mean the place their trip originates from (work or home), which entry point they use, or which route they use.

Community engagement platforms and survey tools offer dozens of survey question types. It’s often hard to understand which question type will yield the best result. If in doubt, check our comprehensive guide on designing engagement survey questions.

8. Use open questions sparingly 

Typing a long-form answer to an open question takes a lot of time and can lead to survey fatigue. In turn, it can result in a respondent leaving the survey incomplete. So it’s better to use closed question-types when possible.

The analysis of open questions also cannot be easily automated. So if you gather a great deal of written material, you also need to reserve the time to read and categorize it.     

screenshot illustrating one of the best practices of survey design: using varied question types
You can use various types of questions to survey public experiences but also give a chance for leaving any other comments.

This is not to say you should not use open questions, but to encourage you to use them thoughtfully in places where no other question type can do the same job adequately.

Why not ask a respondent to mark a place on the map instead of tediously describing which crossing is especially insecure for biking? With Maptionnaire, you can easily design these types of questions.

Check this article for more on the use of GIS and geolocated data in questionnaires.

But it’s always good to have at least one open question per survey, where respondents can leave any comments and feedback they couldn’t communicate in other questions.

9. Go easy with obligatory questions

Obligatory questions can be used to force respondents to answer important questions. Setting too many of them can, however, feel annoying. To the degree that some respondents even leave the questionnaire without finishing it. 

Instead of forcing people to answer, in most cases you can get the same result by making questions sound relevant and look appealing to answer.

10. Use visual communication

Just as answering open questions can result in survey fatigue, so can having to read a lot of text. Use visual communication whenever possible! 

Have a look at how the City of Jyväskylä uses visual surveys for their public participation projects!

using images as answer options is a good practice for pubic participation surveys
Here’s how you can use images as survey answers in Maptionnaire.

Use images of objects instead of describing them (but remember to add alt-text then, see the best practice of survey design no. 4).

Use schemes to visualize processes, and infographics to summarize research results. Photobanks (for example, Unsplash) have a wealth of free-to-use images, and tools like Canva help you create awesome illustrations without any graphic design skills.

Maptionnaire offers many ways for making your survey more visual. In addition to using images as answer options, you can use them within the text, as static or interactive backgrounds. We also offer a variety of maps in different styles to add some visual punch!

For more tips, check this article on creating visual questionnaires.

11. Include instructions on how to answer

Respondents may sometimes face technical issues, especially with map-based questions. It’s a good idea to add instructions on how to use the survey tool.

Also, consider the phrasing of your instructions: instead of using rather technical terms such as “point”, “line” and “polygon”, you could use “place”, “route”, and “area” to better describe what you wish the respondents to answer.

In a participatory mapping survey for a Green Belt project, project leaders did a fantastic job at explaining the survey mechanics. They’ve added a test round and a video explainer.

12. Test, test, test! 

Always test your survey: does it flow smoothly? Are the questions arranged in a logical way? 

Also, take a look at the data you get in your results file. Is it categorized the way you imagined? 

The best way to test a survey is to gather a group of voluntary testers who are in your target group. Remember, you can always make changes to a Maptionnaire survey at any stage!

How Maptionnaire Can Help You with Survey Design

Maptionnaire’s tools are designed specifically for supporting the public participation process. Flexible and user-friendly survey design, interactivity and gamification, use of images and maps, and various types of questions topped up with security and GDPR compliance — that’s what you get. 

And by the way, here is a great resource for more survey design principles! Maptionnaire hosted a talk on the best methods of survey design, walking you through all the steps, starting from defining the goal to testing and to reaching out to respondents. Fill in this form to open the recording and learn more about designing effective surveys.

Maptionnaire offers an extensive toolkit for designing survey — especially for community engagement projects.

Have a look at our general survey and map-based survey features
And if you want a personalized live demo, just hit that Demo button.
Explore Maptionnaire for survey design

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