Beginner’s Guide to Writing Great Surveys

ux beginner guide writing survey

A UX researcher is constantly asking: what do users think and experience while using our product. Why did they choose it and how do they use it?

Surveys are popular with UX practitioners, as well as marketers, social scientists, ethnographers, and strategists to answer these questions. UX Bootcampers can use surveys to test an idea for a new product in your design class. Entrepreneurs often use surveys to develop their product based on user needs and wants.

Article written by Rachel Gita Schiff, founder and principal consultant at schiffresearch.com, research methods and evaluation enthusiast, data collection champion.  

With a little preparation, surveys can greatly benefit your research by collecting data…

  • from large number of respondents
  • without geographic or time limitations that can occur with interviews
  • that can generalize to a larger population
  • that is low cost

Three Pillars of Good Surveys

You’ve probably been invited to take hundreds of surveys by different websites, and noticed some that are poorly designed, confusing, or just plain annoying. In order to write a survey that your users won’t hate, you need to answer three questions first:

Information Goals: what do you want to know?

Target Audience: who do you want to ask?

Analysis Plan: how will you use the responses you collect?

Using the Three Pillars in Action

Let’s say you’re working on an app promoting healthy lifestyles. Your team is considering adding a social component, and you want to send a survey to current users and ask about how community and social events motivate their healthy choices.

Start with your Three Pillars:

Information goals: user preferences, behaviors, and decisions-making for participating in communities related to healthy lifestyle

Target audience:  a sample of current users healthy lifestyle app.

Analysis plan: user’s responses will be used to develop ideas for different areas of app development, market potential for adding community resource to app, and list of needs and wants for for a social component

Once you have your information goals, target audience, and data plan you are ready to begin writing your survey! For each information goal, write a few questions that will ‘unpack’ the goal. Here’s a quick review of common survey elements and questions to use in your survey design…

Survey elements

Surveys use mostly close-ended questions that include a limited number of answers for a user to choose from:   

  • Yes-No
  • True-False
  • Multiple Choice
  • Rating Scale/Continuum (Likert-type scale)
  • Agree-Disagree scale
  • Rank ordering

You can also include open-ended questions in the form of a box for text input. Generally you want to limit the amount of open ended questions (e.g. a box for text input) in a survey because of the effort involved in filling those out – it’s much easier for users to input close-ended questions.

If including an open-ended text field, you should include one at the end of your survey as a “catch-all” to get any remaining user input. Here’s a common open-ended question:  “Do you have any other comments or suggestions you want to share?”

_ _ _

Now you have your survey goals written out, and a list of questions. Congrats on getting this far! Already, you are developing a better and more thoughtful survey than many others, but your survey isn’t done yet.

Take the time to review and test your survey. Remember that you’re requesting time from your users’ busy lives,and the best way to show appreciation and understand of that is to have a well-prepared and error-free survey.

First, you can read through it yourself. Make sure once you make all the corrections that you also test it with a friend or coworker who hasn’t seen it before and can talk through their understanding of what you mean to ask. They can spot confusing questions and typos that you might miss.

After a friend or colleague’s review, you now have the basics for writing a stellar survey.

Putting survey design knowledge into practice

Here’s a quick 5-step plan to start crafting your survey off the right foot:

  1. Choose a topic, school assignment, work project, or a topic of personal interest. Maybe you have a website with your portfolio and want to collect reactions from your coworkers or classmates; or you have some ideas for a weekend trip and want your family to provide feedback.
  2. Spend a few minutes brainstorming questions and things about your subject that make you curious.
  3. Write your information goals, target audience, and data plan.
  4. Then practice writing some questions for your new survey. For this exercise, write only five questions – I mean it, just five.
  5. Then test this out with someone who you might want to interview. Ask them to look over the survey – this can be a google or word doc and just talk out loud as they fill it out.

After going through the above 5 steps, make any corrections needed. Perhaps you noticed that in your initial review, the survey participant found some questions confusing. User testing your survey with 1 or 2 people before blasting it out for the world to see can save you a lot of time :)

Finally, with your revised survey, share it with 5 people from your target audience. This is the start to creating a survey that will maximize your research efforts!