The 9 Most Important Survey Design Tips & Best Practices

Businesses create surveys for a variety of reasons. Perhaps, you’re looking to test customer satisfaction with a new product or trying to see if a marketing campaign was successful. Or, maybe you want to evaluate employees about their experience with your company to reduce turnover. Or, maybe you just wanted to get feedback on your lunch-and-learn to see if you should host another one next week.

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Whatever your purpose may be, you want to make sure your survey is appealing to your target audience. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your survey questions are if no one answers them. Often, participants won’t even read your questions if your survey looks confusing or time-consuming.

Survey design is extremely important as it can make or break your survey’s completion rate. With this in mind, let’s review some survey design fundamentals, then we’ll list some best practices you can use when gathering feedback for your business.

Survey Design

Survey design is the process of creating, formatting, and stylizing a survey. This step plays a crucial role in motivating participants to complete survey questions. When surveys are designed for a target audience, participants are more likely to finish the form and provide your business with valuable feedback.

When creating a survey, keep in mind the three C’s: clear, concise, communicative. These are the core factors that influence your survey’s design.

1. Clear

Are your survey questions easy to understand? Does each one elicit a specific answer? Will your participants understand the point of each? If questions seem random or out of place participants will lose focus and may not complete your form.

2. Concise

How long is your survey? Is it the ideal survey length? Is it less than 30 questions? Are your questions worded succinctly and only asked once, not re-phrased or asked in multiple ways? Pay close attention to these details as the length of your survey is one of the most important factors that influence its completion rate.

3. Communicative

Will the questions help you achieve your main goal? Does each one hold weight in producing meaningful insights? Be sure to remove any questions that are irrelevant or may distract participants.

If you’re looking to master survey design, read on for more tips and best practices.

9 Survey Design Best Practices

  1. Set a goal for your survey.
  2. Lean towards closed-ended questions.
  3. Avoid biased and leading questions.
  4. Pay attention to your vocabulary and phrasing.
  5. Utilize response scales.
  6. Keep your wording simple.
  7. Use images and videos to clarify information.
  8. Explain questions that seem unnecessary or intrusive.
  9. Test your survey.

1. Set a goal for your survey.

Before designing your survey, you should come up with a goal or set of goals that you’d like to achieve. Without this benchmark, it’s easy to get off-topic and lose sight of your survey’s purpose.

Your goal should be simple but specific. Rather than, “I want to evaluate employee satisfaction,” consider a more precise goal like, “I want to understand what’s causing rapid turnover on our customer-facing teams.” This will provide you with a roadmap to your survey’s design, making it easier to determine its questions and how to order them.

2. Lean towards closed-ended questions.

Closed-ended questions are questions that include pre-determined answers created by the survey’s designers. Typically, these questions come in multiple-choice or checkbox format and participants choose their favorite option from the set of answers provided. Close-ended questions are preferred because they produce quantitative results, which are easier to respond to as well as analyze.

Open-ended questions can be used for qualitative data, but since they take longer to fill out and review, it’s best to only include them when looking for specific feedback or when working with smaller audiences. In these cases, place the questions towards the end of the survey as they take more effort to complete and can sometimes overwhelm the participant. The best place to put them is about three quarters into the survey before participants experience survey fatigue.

3. Avoid biased and leading questions.

It’s easy to include biased or leading questions in your survey. For instance, asking, “How wonderful was your experience with our customer service team?” is a common example of a leading question — a question that encourages the researcher’s desired response.

Questions like these undermine the validity of your results. You can’t trust your data’s accuracy because participants have been subjectively influenced by your team.

Instead, you can ask this question by saying, “How would you rate your experience with our customer service team?” This maintains an unbiased attitude, encouraging respondents to answer honestly.

4. Pay attention to your vocabulary and phrasing.

On a similar note, the validity of your data can be jeopardized if your questions are too vague or too limited. Using absolute words like “always,” “every,” or “never” force participants to completely agree or disagree with your questions, which can make some people hesitant to answer. For instance:

Do you always shop with our company online?

A. Yes

B. No

The above question limits your responses. After all, some customers may shop online occasionally and in-store at other times. With the answers they’re given, it forces them to choose one which decreases the accuracy of their response.

Additionally, double-barreled questions — questions that ask participants to respond to two separate sentiments at once — can affect validity as well. For example, asking, “What do you like best about our website and social media?” forces participants to answer based on their view of either your website or your social media. You won’t know which one they chose, making their response relatively useless.

5. Utilize response scales.

Response scales show the intensity of one’s attitude towards a specific topic. These types of responses provide in-depth feedback on how your audience feels without using open-ended questions.

Rather than offering Yes/No or True/False responses, you can use a 5-point or 7-point Likert scale. Participants are presented with a series of statements then asked to rate their opinion using a scale that has opposite extremities. For instance, rather than asking, “Do you come to our stores often?” you could phrase the question like this:

How often do you come to one of our stores?

A. Very Frequently

B. Frequently

C. Occasionally

D. Rarely

E. Never

This format gives you specific feedback on a topic while maintaining a quantitative, closed-ended response.

6. Keep the wording simple.

Remember the first “C” that stood for “Clear?” You want to make sure that what you’re asking participants is user-friendly, comprehensible, and leaves no room for miscommunication. A good way to do this is by using casual language with your target audience.

For instance, rather than asking, “What insights did you procure from your conversation with our customer service reps that ultimately impacted your decision to transition from acquisition to advocacy?” try asking, “How did your experiences with our customer service team help you remain loyal?” The language is simple, every participant will understand it, and it isn’t a run-on sentence.

7. Use images and videos to clarify information.

Sometimes, no matter how well-worded your question is, it still might not be clear to respondents. In these cases, it’s best to accompany the question with images or videos to clear up any confusion.

For example, if you want to ask participants how they’d feel about a new product, it may not be enough to describe the concept using only words. Rather than writing a long description, you could include an image that participants can evaluate like the example below.

Consider the following image before answering the question below.


How much would you be willing to pay for this smartphone?

A. $0-199

B. $200-399

C. $400-599

D. $600-799

E. $800-999

This format is much cleaner than a block of text that some participants may not read. And, it lets you ask a series of questions based on one distinct image.

8. Explain questions that may seem unnecessary or intrusive.

For some surveys, you may have to ask questions that could seem unnecessary or personal. For example, to learn more about your target audience, you may have to ask demographic questions about ethnicity, income, gender, etc. Some participants are sensitive to these topics, so it’s important to explain why you’re asking for this information.

If people feel uncomfortable, they might skip your question or worse, abandon the survey altogether. To make it clear why these questions are being asked, provide a short description explaining why they’re important to your research. Let participants know that the responses will be confidential and used only for research purposes. And, of course, follow through on your word.

9. Test your survey.

Once you’ve designed your survey, you should test it before sending it out to stakeholders. After all, you want to make sure the survey is effective and that it’ll collect the data you’re looking for. Conducting a test-run on a small sample size or internal employees can help your team catch overlooked errors.

Getting fresh eyes on the survey will ensure there are no missing questions, misspelled words, or biased wording that you may have missed. It’s best to find these problems now rather than discovering them after the survey’s been distributed.

Also, use this opportunity to obtain feedback on the survey’s design. Is it too long? Is it boring? Are any questions confusing, or repetitive? Did the questions make sense?

Use this feedback to edit your survey, then test it again. Keep going through this process until you get a positive response from your participants and are prepared to send out the final draft.

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