Survey Design & Outreach Tips

How to Design Community Engagement Survey Questions

October 25, 2022
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Last update: March 1, 2024

Making a good survey is not a piece of cake. And the way you structure your community engagement survey questions defines the data you get, the number of responses you receive, and even the overall public buy-in of your project.

So let’s figure out how to ask the right questions in community engagement projects, optimize the survey’s length, and create a solid structure.

What is a Community Engagement Survey and When Do You Need One?

Community engagement survey helps you learn about the needs, concerns, and preferences of a community. These types of surveys are often undertaken by planners, city administrators, or property managers when they want public feedback on a certain project or policy or to gather data for the preliminary stages of a plan.

The aim of an online community engagement survey is to:

  1. gather actionable insights from the community (in a format that is easy to analyze);
  2. inform residents about different projects and changes;
  3. provide a communication channel through which the public can meaningfully contribute to urban planning.

A community engagement survey can be implemented at any stage of the development project — from gathering preliminary opinions to evaluating the outcomes of a project. So a survey should definitely be a part of a planning cycle.

In the past, these surveys were distributed on paper or completed during in-person workshops. This has meant that the volume of data has been fairly small and often not representative of the community. The internet has essentially revolutionized community engagement, enabling a simple survey to reach larger and more representative demographics. Online surveys are also more visual, spatial, and interactive and help you foster real dialogue within the community.

7 Principles of Formulating Community Engagement Survey Questions

1. Start with the scope of your project

Make sure you know exactly what kind of input you want from the community. Is it information on their habits like mobility patterns and leisure activity preferences? Or is it their wishes for the future or opinions about a draft plan?

Include an introductory statement on the first page of your survey: tell your audience why you are asking these things and how their input will be treated.

an example of a community engagement survey that introduces the scope of the project
This community engagement survey introduces the scope and idea of the project on the very first page.

2. Understand your community

Define who your target audience is: for example, residents of a single district or the whole city, only business owners, or all the stakeholders. Understand these communities, their cultures, languages, and power imbalances — this preparatory research will help you contextualize the questions and make the survey more relevant.
It also helps to look at the previous engagement activities done with the same audience — what can you learn from them? Which segments were underrepresented, and how would you ensure their voice is heard in the current community engagement survey?

Address power imbalances and underrepresentation from the beginning. For example, ask the survey questions also in the minority languages of your community and involve members of the community in the design of the survey.

an example of a multilingual survey
Maptionnaire platform has a built-in tool for translating your survey so that you can reach to diverse groups in your community.

3. Think about data and the type of the survey questions

Then decide on the format that you want your resulting data to come in: quantitative, geolocated, or qualitative — or a healthy mix of all. This will define which types of questions you need to use in your survey and how you formulate them:

  • Map-based questions are useful for collecting opinions and habits as GIS data: respondents can draw lines (commute or streets), points (favorite places or places that need certain improvements), or whole areas (undeveloped areas). It's also possible to pre-define the areas people can choose their answer from. It’s always a great idea to ask more specific questions in a related pop-up.
  • Multiple choice questions are great for analyzing preferences but still keeping your data quantifiable. If you can ask a question with a simple multiple choice instead of for example an open question – go for it.
a multiple choice question for a public participation survey
With Maptionnaire, you can not only include multiple-choice questions but immediately show preliminary survey results!
  • Sliding scale questions allow you to gauge how a respondent feels about a topic
a community engagement survey question with opinion sliders
You can combine different types of questions on one survey page — just like in this Maptionnaire survey.
  • Voting and gamification elements bring in more interactivity
a voting question for a community participation survey
An example of a gamification element in Maptionnaire
  • Open questions allow the respondent to write their answer in their own words – but use them sparingly, as they can be tiring and the results can be difficult to analyze
in this case, the right survey question type was an open-ended question
Give respondents room to share their thoughts (and it doesn’t even have to be in text form)
  • Budgeting questions are useful for participatory budgeting and resources allocation activities
an example of a survey for participatory budgeting
Ask your respondents to allocate budget on various improvements and place those on the map! You can do it with Mapitonnaire’s gamified decision-making tool.
  • Audio, photos, and videos can also be submitted as answers.
a question for a community engagement survey for submitting files
With Maptionnaire, you can design the survey to collect photos, videos, images or voice messages as answers.

Here are more tips on survey design for public participation projects.

4. Include demographic questions

Do you need to know the socio-demographic profile of your respondents? Are you interested to know how feedback varies between different segments of your community?

→ Then include these demographic questions at the end of the survey, and make sure you ask only the necessary information.

background questions in a survey
Ask background questions at the end of the survey.

5. Optimize the length and question variety

Survey fatigue is a common issue that all organizations conducting community engagement should understand. If the survey is too detailed, too dull, or there is no evident point in taking it, the respondent will just drop out.

Think from the point of view of the respondent – why should I spend my valuable time answering this survey? You need to find a balance between getting detailed and useful data and having a concise and engaging survey.

To make your survey more compact, use skip pages aka page jumps (for example, if a person doesn’t own a car, they will automatically skip questions about driving routes). Also include maps, images, and various question types to make the survey less monotonous and more visual.

6. Consider privacy and accessibility issues

It’s a must to include a privacy policy whenever you’re dealing with personal information. There are also certain types of sensible questions (e.g., religious beliefs or political views) that are considered sensitive data and should be approached with care.

As for accessibility, the key is to provide alternatives to certain question types and include alt-texts for screen readers. Did you know that Maptionnaire received AA qualification in a WCAG 2.1 evaluation?

Here is a useful guide on making a GDPR-compliant survey and on accessibility issues.

7. Test your community engagement survey questions

Designing survey questions is an iterative process, so make sure to have enough time for testing. It’s better to test with a sample from your target audience — but your colleagues and friends will do as well. Ensure that the questions are formulated clearly and the survey flows naturally from one question to the next.

And always peek into the resulting data — is it useful for you, does it come in the right format? Or do you need to change the question type?

Always test your surveys. Check for technical issues (is it working on mobile devices?), clarity of questions, the general flow, and the resulting data. We can’t stress it enough — so if you want to learn more, get a recording of our survey design webinar.

Use The Right Platform for Community Engagement Surveys

For better engagement results, don’t think just in terms of a single survey. A questionnaire is one step out of many in a continuous engagement process with stakeholders, citizens, clients, and community members.

To make things easier for you, choose a tool that allows for comprehensive engagement with residents. With Maptionnaire Community Engagement Platform, for example, you can not only make geo-based or traditional surveys but also publish the results, run a participatory budgeting process, or establish an engagement portal with multiple surveys and participation activities.
A community engagement survey is an important method for planners for reaching out to residents and collecting data, as well as informing them about changes to the living environment.

Are you interested in using Maptionnaire for designing community engagement surveys?

Have a demo with our team, and they’ll show you around!
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