Online Technology for Research & Insight

Research Blog 1 March 2017

Designing surveys as conversations

Thinking of your survey as a conversation will guide you when it comes to making decisions on the content, tone and structure of your survey. Before you begin, take a moment to think about who you are targeting and imagine a conversation with them.

When you first start a conversation, you usually begin with some general pleasantries. The same should be true for your survey. Introduce the topic you want to talk about and start with general, easy-to-answer questions. This will put your respondent at ease and allow them to understand the topic area you are asking about.

As with real conversations, you will gradually build up a rapport, which will allow you to move on to any harder or more sensitive questions that you need to ask. You will still need to be careful not to demand too much of your respondent as they can quickly turn against you. For example, setting every single question as compulsory will make it seem more like an interrogation than a conversation – "you must answer these questions, or else!". There are many reasons that respondents may not wish to answer a particular question and respecting this will ensure more accurate data from the ones who do reply.

Also, try to ask only the most important questions and ditch the ones that won't give you much useful information. Nobody likes being bombarded with questions, especially if they can't see the benefit of them. Remember, respondents are doing you a favour by taking your survey so treat them well.

Most conversations will flow from one topic to the next. If you change topic, consider putting in a page break with a new page title, to indicate a change of subject. You may also wish to add in some text to smoothen the transition e.g. "Now we would like to ask you about your recent travels".

Using routing in your survey can also help improve the structure for respondents, ensuring that only those who have answered in a certain way see further questions on the topic. Much the same as your real life conversation will flow in different directions depending on the person you are speaking to and their interests.

Finally, as with any conversation, adapt the tone and language to your audience but always remain friendly and polite throughout. Finish your survey by bringing things to a close and thanking them for their time.