Surveys are the bedrock of data-driven research. The quality and reliability of your data and, by extension, your entire project hinges on the effectiveness of your survey. Get it wrong and you’ll be left wading through the murky marshes of meaningless data that make little or no sense, with an immense investment of time and effort wasted. Going ahead with an undercooked survey also reflects poorly on your organization. The people who have been through your earlier survey will be less than accommodating when you reach out to them next time even if you return with a new and improved version.

It is important then to get your survey right the first time, and doing that requires a concerted and conscious focus on thought and planning. Don’t let this be a daunting proposition though; think of it as an opportunity. Good data means good results, and if your survey has been designed well, half your work is done right there. It’s easy, really. Let’s walk through the eight steps to designing an ideal survey. For ease of understanding, we’ll consider these steps with respect to an impact assessment for a self-help group.

1. Set your goals

Defining the purpose of your survey in clear, unambiguous terms is absolutely vital. It sets the direction for everything you do. Coming back to the drawing board and reminding yourself of the purpose of the survey can be a good way to get back on track when the team feels like it’s stuck in a rut and is unable to draw inspiration to continue driving forward. The goals of the survey also dictate all the other aspects of survey design to a large extent.

Example

An example of a clear, constructive goal could be “assess the impact of microfinance on people living in a certain district”. As we move through the rest of the steps, we’ll see how this goal lends itself to every aspect of the survey.

2. Narrow down on your target population

In order to collect data that is relevant to the purpose of your study, it is important that you reach out to the right people. Identifying the right sample for your survey is another critical aspect of survey and bears heavily on the structure and mode of survey that you choose to employ. The nature and language of the questions used while formulating the questionnaire also depend heavily on the target population.

Example

Selection of the target population follows largely from the goal that you have selected for your survey. The target in the case of the example we’ve taken here would be the working population of the district between 18 and 60 years of age.

3. Structure the survey

Dividing a questionnaire into categories results in an intuitive structure that is easy for participants to navigate. The researcher can also improve the survey experience further by providing additional explanation at the beginning of each section. This gives the respondent an idea of what to expect. Categorizing the questions while designing the survey, even before you get down to writing the questions, helps maintain the focus on the different research objectives and ensures a balanced output.

Example

Dividing the questionnaire, for instance, into sections on Particulars (personal background information) and Impact Assessment (Social, Educational and Cultural) will lend a logical flow to the survey that makes it easier to grasp. This will also make it easier for you to assign categories to the data that you collect and simplify the analysis process.

4. Select the mode of your survey

The mode that you employ to administer the survey depends on the sample type and size. Use the mediums that are the most effective in reaching your target population. The time span of the research is also an important factor that impacts this decision. Leveraging technology to maximize the extent and depth of your reach might come in very handy in such situations. SocialCops has had great success in using mobile application and low-cost smartphones to collect data at the grassroot level.

Example

Selecting the wrong mode for your survey can cripple your research. Launching a web-based survey that needs people to visit a website in order to answer the questionnaire, for instance, will be nearly useless while trying to reach people in villages that have limited or no internet access. The mode of the survey should use tools and infrastructure that can easily reach your target population and account for the comfort level that your respondents have towards the technology that you employ.

5. Choose the right question type

Using the right tool for the right job is essential in any endeavor. Questions are the tools of your survey and picking the wrong question type can be as awkward as using a screwdriver to knit a pullover. Throw in a good mix of close ended questions – dichotomous (yes/no), multiple choice, and ordinal scale (rank, preference) – after considering the purpose that each question type will serve. Top it up with open ended questions where necessary. Read more about how to optimize your survey quality by choosing the right question types.

6. Formulate the questions

Words mean different things to different people and taking care of some of the finer nuances involved in formulating an effective question can go a long way. Don’t leave any scope for ambiguity. Be clear about what you need and get your questions proofread by somebody who is not familiar with your study before sending out the survey. Brevity is essential; respondents are more likely to respond positively to questions that are concise and able to hold their attention. Avoid unnecessary jargon; the language should be as simple and generic as possible. And finally, the answer choices must be well defined.

Example

If you ask respondents to rank their level of satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 5 but fail to explain whether 1 is very satisfied or 5 is very satisfied, their responses will be of little value.

7. Introduce the survey

Introduction is often considered to be the most critical part of the survey as a majority of the respondents make up their mind about whether or not they would like to answer the survey after going through the introduction. The introduction, thus, needs to make a good, strong first impression. It sets the tone for the rest of the survey and lays down the context in a simple, easy to comprehend manner. Begin with a statement thanking the respondents for their time and explain the subject of the study along with a confidentiality statement to address privacy concerns. Mention the expected time required to complete the survey and display the percentage completed as the respondent moves ahead.

8. Take the field

Once the survey is ready, execute your plans through a robust collection mechanism. If the survey is being conducted in person, make sure the people who administer the survey completely understand the purpose of the survey and are comfortable conversing with the population they’re supposed to interact with. Training them on the use of open-ended and unstructured questions and briefing them about the technicalities of the survey is imperative. Before you head out to launch your survey in the field or online, test the survey over a small control group to see if everything functions the way you expect it to.

Eight simple steps and you’re all set to go. If you have designed your survey well and executed your plans to perfection, good, clean data filled with tremendous potential for gathering insights will start surging in. To know more about how you can analyze this data and make the most of your survey, read about the fascinating world of data science.


Surveys are an indispensable tool for data collection, but they are not simple to create. A poorly-designed survey will lead to useless data, wasting your time and money. That’s why we’ve created our ebook, “The Ultimate Guide to Effective Data Collection”. This ebook is designed to help anyone design, write and conduct a survey. Download now!

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