Online Survey Design: Key Elements of Effective Questionnaires

Whether you have a question about the product that you are offering, about its features or just simply want your customers opinion about something, most likely you will create a survey. In this article I will talk about survey design best practices and how to design a survey that will bring you useful results.

Although it can be time consuming, in order to create an effective questionnaire, you need to consider a few survey design guidelines:

  • Target audience
  • A Clear objective
  • The length/structure
  • The flow
  • Look & feel
  • Survey tools
  • Testing

Let’s do a quick UX survey

In many teams this is the first idea when they would like to find out more about their users and their needs. Doing a survey looks like a quick and easy win, but in reality it is the opposite. It’s difficult to write the right questions. Many people don’t even know that their questions are biased or misleading. And browsing through a lot of survey answers you often feel they don’t help you at all.

With an online survey you won’t be able to draw conclusions based on your interviewer’s body language or phrasing. You can’t really study behaviors with it. And UX is mainly about behavior patterns. The only things that will make people interpret your questions correctly are wordings, the structure as a whole and even the choice of colors.

What UX survey is good for?

  1. Finding out why people visited your site. 
  2. Collecting quantitative data to back-up your qualitative research findings: unfortunately business leaders tend to believe you more, when you can show them big numbers. So after doing your qualitative research (user tests, field research, interviews) on a small scale, you can validate your findings with a survey.
  3. Gathering feedback about a new, or beta service.
  4. Accumulating quantitative data about content quality or overall customer satisfaction.
  5. Recruiting test participants for moderated user tests.
  6. The main advantage of a UX survey is that you can ask real visitors during their actual visit. People forget things easily and later they can give different explanations. With a survey in your product you can gather valuable information about who they are and why they’re there.

Surveys are not suitable if you would like to study:

  • How your visitors behave (observation-based user tests or field researches are better for that)
  • Usability problems of  your product (usability tests are better for that)
  • Pains and needs are (in-depth interviews or experience sampling is better for that)

But are you sure that a UX survey is the best solution for you?

Is there any other method that can provide better insights faster? Consider doing a user test, field research, interview or analytics evaluation first. If you are sure that you need a UX survey proceed with the following steps.

Start by making sure you have everything checked from the list below:

A Clear Objective

Define the purpose of the survey, what is the main objective for creating this questionnaire? 

Avoid crowding it with more than one otherwise you’ll end up with useless answers and lots of wasted time.

Target Audience

You need to define your target audience and to do so you should start with a broader group then narrow it down by asking yourself the following questions. What describes best your target audience? 

What is their age, stage of life, education level, occupation? You also have to consider demographic differences.

The questions 

To get the most accurate feedback you have to phrase your questions to match the language of the people who are likely to take the survey. 

You need to focus on only one and preferably the main issue per survey. A survey question can be open-ended or close-ended. 

For closed-ended questions people can choose from predefined answers. These questions can generate nice statistics, they are easy to answer and evaluate.

On the other hand, they can’t give us any insights about people’s thoughts. So you should put a follow-up “Why?” question and a text box after these. It’s also better to have another field too, where they can give answers you haven’t thought about before. 

For open-ended questions people can write their own answers. These are better for understanding user’s mindset and these can provide useful insights. However they are more difficult to fill out, because users have to think about the answer and not just select one. It is also more time-consuming to analyse these answers, because you have to read through so much unstructured text. 

A good question is short and clear. Long, complicated questions are hard to read and understand. When people don’t understand the questions it will result in useless answers. 

The length of a question should be somewhere between 15-20 words. If it is longer try to rewrite it. Use plain English, describe what it is exactly you want to know, but don’t be too meticulous.

A few useful tips on writing good survey questions:

  • Avoid using double negatives. (“Is this question non-trivial? Yes. No.”)
  • Don’t use biased questions. For example, the question “What do you hate in this product?” suggests that the reader hates something. Avoid being suggestive. Try to be as neutral as you can.
  • Ask one question at a time (“What do you think of our UX company‘s blog and brand?” is a bad question)
  • Don’t ask the same questions over and over (“Rate your web checkout experience. … Rate your overall experience.”).
  • Avoid asking about behaviors (what they did and how).
  • Use balanced rating scales. If you have 4 answers in a scale (very bad, bad, good, very good) people are forced to decide between good and bad. Give them a middle option, so the stats won’t be distorted by the people who can’t decide.
  • Avoid overlapping scales (0-2, 2-4, 4-6)
  • Always provide “Other” or “Don’t know” options.
  • Let people share their thoughts after every closed-ended questions. Give them a non-required text boxes with a Why?questions.

The Length 

Now this might be the hardest part, but try to keep it as short as possible. Based on best practices an online survey should not be longer than 5 minutes otherwise the participants will lose focus.

Be brief and logical. Think about it, when you open up a page and see an overwhelmingly huge amount of content you will most likely close it before even reading it. If you end up with lots of lengthy questions try the following: 

  • Try to reevaluate your research and narrow down your objective
  • Split your survey and have two instead of one
  • Instead of a boring long page you could also consider structuring your questions by breaking them up into more pages in a logical and consistent way.

The flow

Make sure your questions are structured in a logical order.Start with an introduction in which you define what the aim of the survey is.

Try to group relevant questions together this way the participant can stay focused and won’t end up skipping any of them. It’s also recommended that you put personal identification questions to the end.

Look & feel

Obviously the key element of a survey is the text. But relevant design elements could also add great value to it.

Color has a huge impact on people. Choosing the right color that matches your survey can affect the mindset of a participant which will result in more honest responses. However, make sure not to overdo it. You should consider one primary and if necessary one secondary color. 

Highlighting elements is a good way to navigate a participant. For example you do want to have a clear Submit button which pops out so people can easily detect it and click on it. Make sure the survey looks good on smaller devices and the button’s height isn’t smaller than 44px.

If your embedding your survey on your webpage make sure it matches your branding. This will reflect professionalism and it will increase people’s trust. Don’t be afraid of using white space within your survey. Let it breathe!

A huge amount of text stacked on top of each other would overwhelm people and will probably end up leaving before reading the title.As mentioned before, shortened questions and page breaks will result in a cleaner look.

Consider having a dynamic progress bar especially if you decide on breaking up the survey into more pages. This will make people feel that they are advancing and motivate them to finish the survey.

 Depending on your survey’s topic you should even consider adding images where possible. Not only that they capture a user’s attention better, they help process the information much faster than written words.

Survey tools

Surveymonkey

You can use many different tools to create the survey from Google Forms to Survey Monkey and Survey Gizmo. There are many tools out there which make styling your survey a piece of cake like Formstack or NextivaYou can also find some useful tools for collecting online feedback in this article we wrote.

Testing

Once you think you have a well defined survey, test it! Test it with friends, within the company, however you can. They’ll be able to point out obvious errors like typos, questions or answers that don’t really make sense, even potential biases.

If you have time try to A/B test your call to actions to see which converts better.

3 most common UX survey types

Bottom-right panel. A small dialog-box appears in the bottom right corner with a question. This is my personal favorite. People will recognise it, but it is not too aggressive. It doesn’t cover important content. These kinds of surveys usually starts with an enquiry right away, and have just a few questions. It makes them easy to complete and are user friendly. You can ask questions to: 

  • understand your users’ intent: “What did you come to do?”
  • collect personal data: “What field do you work in?”
  • check people’s understanding of your product: “Can you summarize what our product does in one sentence?” or “What information is missing from this page?”

Tools like Qualaroo or Survicate can help you create these surveys.

Interstitial survey pop-ups. For longer surveys you can use interstitial pop-ups to invite your visitors to take the survey. The survey itself will be on a separate page. I hate pop-ups, because they stand between me and my goal, although it’s okay to use them in some cases. Be careful though, show these for just the right users and for a limited time. And please consider doing a short, bottom-right corner questionnaire instead.

These surveys allow you to dig a bit deeper, but if you have too many questions people will just quit.

Feedback form placed between the content. A single question form built into your product. It seamlessly integrates into your content, it appears in the right step of your customer journey and helps you get some feedback. Some people call this micro feedback. On the image below you can see how Uber’s rating feature is integrated into the design. 

You can use a similar solution to rate the content of the page, like many support forums do. Or you can use this to rate the overall experience. A good example is e-commerce, where they do it after checkout or after the delivery. The data you gather here will help you identify weak contents, but it won’t tell you what the problem is. You’d better follow up with an open-ended question (“Why?”) to understand people’s thoughts.

Takeaways about survey design

As a recap here are the things to keep an eye on for well designed surveys:

  • Define the goal of the survey. What is the question you want to answer? Each survey must have one single purpose. Don’t try to solve too many different things at once. If it is necessary, do some stakeholder interviews to clarify your goals, and communicate the goal of the survey with your team.
  • Define your target audience. Use some kind of segmentation, don’t show your survey to everyone. Define how many answers you want to collect and in what time frame. Don’t bother your users unnecessarily, remove the survey when you get enough data.
  • Don’t write too many questions. There is always a temptation to add more and more questions. That’s bad. A good survey has no more than 4-5 questions.
  • Organize the questions into a logical flow. Ask the connecting questions after each other. Group the questions by their topics if possible.
  • Create the survey, do the technical preparation. You can find good tools linked above. When you are ready click through the whole survey and check the UX and the result. Do you see your answer between the results? Is there any way to make it easier to fill the survey?
  • Ask a few people to fill out the survey and check whether they understand the questions or not?
  • Launch the survey. Check the first answers to make sure everything is working well.
  • Close the survey and analyze the data. Take time to read all the answers. When you have lots of open-ended questions, try to group the answers and look for repeating patterns.

I hope this guide will help you create a better survey. Please share your experience with us. Is there anything we missed?

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Andrea Fabian

Designer, dog addict, proud owner of a telescope, Master's Degree in dad jokes.