How to Execute a Successful Survey

Four Methods:Deciding on the ParametersCreating the SurveyConducting the SurveyCollating the Results

Surveys serve a variety of purposes -- figuring out what constituents want, how different people respond to a drug trial, or just what flavors of ice cream sound appealing on a summer afternoon. Executing a successful survey is not difficult if you put a lot of thought into its format and questions beforehand, and can reveal important (and often surprising) information. Choosing the right parameters, format, and length can make your survey a success and bring you the information you need.

Method 1
Deciding on the Parameters

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    Determine what you’re measuring. The more specific, the better. Think about your main objective and how you can narrow your survey to achieve that objective. For example -- are you trying to find out which political party’s message has more resonance? You could ask respondents which party they will vote for and why. It could be that it’s not even about ideology, but about the candidates themselves, and your survey takers will let you know that. Typical surveys include those that measure:[1]
    • Political choices or leanings
    • Health data
    • Income and labor information
    • Child development statistics
    • Eating and food habits
    • Exercise and wellness patterns
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    Figure out your survey size. The sampling size is important. Too large and it could be extremely time consuming and expensive to analyze, too small, and you may not achieve an accurate portrayal of the information you are seeking. For each survey, your sample size might be different. You need to consider the following factors when determining how many people you’re going to survey:[2]
    • How much money do I have to complete the survey?
    • What kinds of analysis am I going to do with this data, and will it include subgroups?
    • What kind of margin of error am I willing to tolerate?
    • What is the population size for the group I am surveying?
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    Set your area. Local or national, the type of information you desire will dictate the areas you need to cover. Do you want to focus on a particular neighborhood or town, or are you looking for national trends? Once you have set your area, you should consider how your methods can help narrow the survey to only the people in the zone you have chosen.
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    Choose your method. Most surveys are carried out over the phone, on the computer, or in person. Figure out which method or methods are the most effective for the population you have chosen to survey. If you’re going to do a phone survey, how will you get people’s numbers? For a computer survey, where will their email addresses come from? Consider the positives and negatives to each method.[3]

Method 2
Creating the Survey

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    Determine the format of the survey. For some kinds of surveys, you might want short true or false questions, while for others you might want a long written questionnaire with space for extensive written answers. Are you looking for a large volume of quantitative answers, or a smaller number with qualitative answers? This will tell you how to format your survey. Some possible formats include:[4]
    • True or false answers
    • Spectrum answers -- strongly agree to strongly disagree
    • Multiple choice answers
    • Open-ended questions with either short or long answers
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    Choose an appropriate length. The shorter the survey, the more likely people are to complete it. Try for a survey that can be completed in less than five minutes. Make sure all of the questions are short and to the point. If you are providing multiple choice answers, do not list more than ten options -- survey takers are likely to get overwhelmed and stop reading.[5]
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    Write your questions. Pay attention to the order in which you ask the questions -- try and put them in some kind of order so your survey taker can easily follow along. Start with broad questions and move to more specific questions. Be very careful and clear in the wording of your questions. Avoid leading words like might, should, or could.
    • An example of a bad survey question would be the very open-ended: “How could we make the bridge situation better?”
    • A better question getting at the same data might read: “What steps could the mayor and city council take to help the neighborhood deal with the increased traffic from bridge repairs?” and provide 6-8 choices that survey respondents could rank.[6]
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    Pay attention to your wording. Avoid questions that are vague or use jargon that your respondents might know. Asking questions like “What do you think about President Obama?” end up being pretty useless because respondents could go in so many different directions that the answers would not be measurable. In terms of jargon, if your survey is about computer usage, for example, you can’t assume that your survey takers know about IP addresses, so you would need to explain that piece of jargon. You cannot assume knowledge on the part of your respondents.[7]
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    Try out the survey. Give your survey to friends or family and get their feedback. Ask them if they found any of the questions confusing, or if they have any suggestions. Were there any questions they thought you should not include? Feedback is important, because typically you’ve been working on the survey for a while and it’s hard for you to see its possible problems. Fix any problems your friends and family have identified.[8]

Method 3
Conducting the Survey

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    Find your subjects. Make a list of the people you are going to survey with their phone numbers or email addresses. If you’re doing an on-the-street survey, figure out where you are going to stand, and how many people you are going to ask.[9]
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    Define your purpose. Decide exactly what you want to learn from the survey. Is it quantitative or qualitative? (Are you looking for numbers or explanations, or both?) Your objective in giving the survey should guide you to a good explanation to your survey-takers about why it’s important to hear from them. Let people know why they should take the survey and how it will help something: their customer service, medical research, how local tax revenues are allocated, etc. If it’s an academic survey, explain how it will help your research, and what you ultimately hope to do with it -- a book, article, etc.
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    Give the survey. For phone and email surveys, how long are you going to try for people’s responses? You need to have a clear deadline. For an in-person survey, how many hours or days are you going to conduct the survey? If you are doing a phone or in-person survey, how are you going to keep track of the results. Make sure you have a good and consistent way of marking responses. Online surveys are often the easiest, because the data is collected and tabulated for you, and for most respondents is the quickest way to complete a survey.[10]
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    Take stock. At the end of your survey taking, figure out if you can quit when you wanted to, or if you need to keep going. It might turn out that you need a larger sample size because not enough people responded, or the answers were so spread out it was difficult to see what the trends might be. If it seems like your survey is not returning clear results or enough responses, continue to give the survey to more people.

Method 4
Collating the Results

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    Tabulate your responses. Depending on the kind of survey you created, you will be collating it in different ways. For a survey with a spectrum (from strongly disagree to strongly agree), you can assign numerical values to each response (highest numbers are best) and tabulate quantitatively. For a longer survey with written responses, you typically group the answers together by question and then deal with each question at a time.[11]
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    Analyze the results. What did you learn from the survey? Was it what you believed you would find, or not? Take the results and use them for whatever role they were intended -- from the kinds of changes people want to see in a town or city to a public health journal to changes in the way customer service is delivered. Surveys are a great way to hear from a lot of different people, so now it’s up to the survey taker to make sure the people’s voices are heard. If it was an academic survey, you can analyze your results, put them in context, and hopefully publish.[12]
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    Share the results. Put your hard work out there. If it was a customer service survey, tell customers the changes you have made as a result. If it was a medical research survey, tell respondents about how their answers have helped change the course of your research. People like to know that their opinions and thoughts matter, and surveys can help facilitate this. You might even want to share the survey data and conclusions with your survey takers -- possibly through an email or mailing.[13]

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