What do you want from a survey? Ideas or charts?

I’ve used several survey applications in the past, even paying for the enhanced versions where necessary. However I’m increasingly finding that the “forms” in Google Docs are a more versatile and efficient way to ask people things, whether it’s a small group of colleagues or a broad customer survey. This approach doesn’t have quite the ease of setting up complicated multiple-choice answers or logical constructs, but I think that many of us have got carried away with all this professional-looking functionality anyway. It makes you reassess what you really want from a survey, and that’s a good thing.

In business, it’s tempting (but often wrong) to try to copy the type of surveys we see in the media every day, which are used to gauge relative opinion. These surveys are set up to provide quantitative results – is A more popular than B, etc. But in business, we more usually want to get feedback and ideas. Too many people try to shoehorn this requirement into multiple choices so that they can get pie charts at the end of the exercise. So they list all the ideas they can think of, and then ask people to tick boxes. This can be a mistake, as the results often tend to be inconclusive, and there’s no allowance for shades of grey, or even answers which might not have been in the list.

If you’ve ever done a survey with a multiple choice answer and then a box for people to put in “any other comments”, you’ll know what I mean. The stuff in “any other comments” is so much more interesting, that the main multiple choice answers get completely sidelined. A simple example: after a seminar a few years ago, we gave attendees a form with the normal “was it any good?” type of question at the end. X percent of the audience said “very good”, Y percent said “good” – you know the kind of thing. What did we learn? That they didn’t hate it? Or that they were to polite to say so if they did? It offered no real insights. The next year we added a panel for comments, which gave us some really great feedback and ideas for the future. After that we just completely dropped the bit where attendees rated the event, and just asked for comments. Much better.

What do we conclude from all this then? Simply that the best surveys start by considering what we want to get out of them. That should be obvious, but we all forget that as we get carried away with survey technology. So, if what you want from your survey is a pie chart for a presentation, then ask your customers to tick some boxes. But if you want feedback or ideas, just send them some questions with big empty panels underneath where they can write in their answers.

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