By Mary Norris Thomas, CPT, PhD, Guy W. Wallace, CPT, & Jeanne Farrington, CPT, EdD

Questionnaire PhotoWe conduct surveys to gather information, which we then use to make decisions. Obviously, to make good decisions, we must collect good information, and that requires a good survey instrument. Our quick tips for developing informal online questionnaires are for situations that do not require all of the “researchy-rigory stuff” of a full-blown, formal survey.

We have organized our quick tips into four sections: Planning, Development, Testing, and Follow Up.

Planning Tips
Set your goal(s) before you begin. A worthy survey begins with a worthy goal-to learn something about a particular group so that you can make informed decisions or take actions that make sense. Begin by determining:

  • Who will use the survey results to make what decisions or take what actions
  • What information is needed to inform those decisions or take those actions
  • Who are the right people to survey, who have the information you need.

Make a plan. Successful surveys require thorough planning. Create a plan that specifies how you will achieve each of your survey goals, including:

  • The value and cost of your survey
  • The survey project team members
  • Survey project action plan for “who will do what and by when
  • What questions to ask and how to ask them
  • Whom to survey, how many people to survey, and how to reach them

Adhere to ethical practices. Even with informal surveys, it’s very important that you adhere to a code of professional ethics and practices.

Development Tips
Keep it short. Keep the questionnaire as short as possible; a 10 minute completion time is a good length.

Make it inviting. Begin your questionnaire with an inviting welcome message that clearly states:

  • The purpose of the survey
  • Who will use the results to make what decisions or take what actions
  • Participants’ rights such as, voluntary participation, informed consent, anonymity confidentiality, debriefing, and protection from harm
  • The estimated time it will take to complete the questionnaire

Be clear. Provide clear instructions for completing and submitting your questionnaire.

Allow browsing. Allow respondents to browse the entire questionnaire before they begin answering questions. Also, allow them to review their responses before submitting their completed questionnaire. Instead, use a “next” button to advance to the next set of questions. Avoid restrictive programming.

Organize items logically. In general, ask the most important questions first. Sometimes the order of the questions doesn’t matter (or we don’t know if it matters). At other times, we believe that sequencing does matter (like the order of candidates on an election ballot).

Sequencing can be highly structured, and/or include branching (hyper-linked, response-contingent sequencing). Cases like these are determined based upon known or suspected dependencies among items, and/or items within sections, and/or or among whole sections. Usually, question sequencing does not matter for informal surveys.

Make items easy to understand. Consider your audience, and use easy-to-understand language. Avoid technical terms, jargon, and acronyms, unless these are in common use. Avoid leading, biased, or ambiguous language or questions. Ask only one question per item. Be mindful of respondents’ native languages.

Use standard rules of grammar.
Have someone who did not develop the questionnaire proof-read it. Make sure your questionnaire is free of errors in grammar or spelling. Follow standard rules for capitalization. Mistakes detract from your questionnaire’s credibility and make you look less professional.

Make it easy to read. Use simple fonts, such as Arial or Times New Roman. Make sure it is big enough for most people to read, perhaps 12 or 14 points.

  • If needed for emphasis, use only one font attribute per word or phrase. For example, use bold, or underline, or italics, but avoid combining them.
  • Avoid using all capital letters, except maybe for titles or headings.
  • Use black for text. Use a medium-to-dark grey fill if essential for enhancing reading, for emphasis, or to demarcate sections.

Watch the tone & avoid biased wording. For example, be careful that your questions are not predominantly negative. This tells respondents that you’ve already decided there’s a problem and you’re looking for affirmation.

Don’t overwhelm respondents.Respondents’ attitudes toward participating can affect their responses or whether they participate at all. Be careful not to negatively affect your respondents’ attitudes by including them too many times.

Construct items carefully. To get meaningful answers, you must ask the right questions-and ask them correctly. Item construction is critically important to getting useful data, and it’s one of the most difficult survey skills to master. Poorly constructed items won’t provide useful information. Before you start writing questions, read up on the types of question formats, when to use which format, item wording, and overall construction.

Leave a good impression.Finish the questionnaire with:

  • A place for respondents to add any final comments
  • A warm thank-you for their assistance
  • Point-of-contact information in case a respondent wants to follow up
  • If, how, and when respondents will get a copy of the survey results

Testing Tips
Test drive it. Before you administer your questionnaire, ask a few members of your target audience to review your questionnaire.

Follow-Up Tip
Send reminders. Send friendly reminders to non-respondents in a timely manner.

There is much more to conducting an informal surveys than these quick tips. Luckily there’s no shortage of resources to help you. For example, check out the free online tutorials at www.restore.ac.uk/orm/site/home.htm, or www.orspub.com/all about polling.html to learn about how surveys work, item construction, technological challenges, administration, interpreting survey results, and more.

About the Authors
Mary (mnthomas@fleminggroup.com), Guy (guy.wallace@eppic.biz), and Jeanne (jeanne@jfarrington.com) are dedicated ISPI members and award-winning HPT practitioners who apply evidence-based solutions to a variety of unique work environments. They look forward to sharing ideas with you at ISPI meetings and conferences, and they welcome your comments.