It can be easy to forget about the programming stage of an online survey. This work is largely done in the background with little external input outside the programmer.
The lack of spotlight on the programming, however, does not make the process any less crucial to a successful survey effort. Lack of focus at this stage can lead to a dysfunctional survey, faulty data, and negative brand representation.
From my experience with programming online surveys, I've developed a list of six helpful tips to minimize errors in the survey and ensure high quality data.
There is a lot to consider when programming an online survey. Take the time to set it up correctly and think about the respondent's perspective.
Tip #1: Use Best Judgement for Number of Questions on a Page
As a general rule of thumb, I like to keep any given page in an online survey clean and intuitive. The goal is make the question as least onerous to the respondent as possible. While it is important to ask the question correctly, it is just as important to make sure the respondent has a simple, straightforward experience.
I like to think of it as a scaled down version of the more in-depth User Experience (UX) fit for programming a survey. UX is a qualitative research methodology used to understand and improve an experience on a website or app.
An important consideration is the number of questions to display on the page. One question at a time is typically best practice to maintain the focus of the respondent.
However, there are cases in which it may be easier to display a follow-up question on the same page as the first. Think of a satisfaction scale question that is immediately followed by an open-ended question to capture why a respondent feels the way he or she does.
Tip #2: Take Care With "None of the above" and "Other" Options
Many questions in which the respondent selects an option from a list have the choices "None of the above" or "Other." These choices require an extra step or two in programming to work as intended.
When no other answer choices are applicable, a "None of the above" or "N/A" option is present and must be mutually exclusive. For an "Other" option, a text box is often programmed to allow the respondent to share what they felt was missing from the list.
Both these types of answers must also be anchored to the bottom if the list of options are randomized or rotated within the question. These choices should always be easy to spot for the respondent in the event none of the other choices apply to them.
Tip #3: Require Relevant Questions
I also recommend putting some thought into whether questions in the online survey should be required. Forcing a respondent to select an answer for every question isn't always the best strategy.
In situations which the respondents are members of an online panel and easier to replace, being strict with answer requirements may make sense.
In contrast, other studies with hard-to-reach audiences may be more successful with less pressure on the respondents, permitting some questions to be skipped.
Tip #4: Test Logic in Real-Time
Depending on the software used to program the survey, it can be invaluable to test updates as soon as they are implemented.
I like to confirm skip logic, termination logic, and validation as soon as I save the settings for a particular question. Optimizing the survey logic as the questions are programmed will make testing later on less of a headache.
This is also a good time to adjust if something from the written survey translates poorly to online. Additional logic or validation in a question may be necessary to direct the respondents along the correct path.
Tip #5: Verify Piping Makes Sense
Piping, or inserting a previous answer in the survey into a later question, demands a little back-and-forth during programming. It is imperative that every possible answer that can be inserted into a question reads correctly for the respondent.
Common issues to look out for include piping an "Other" response from a previous question or text that doesn't fit in the sentence once it is inserted.
A safe bet here for a question with piping is to ask the question as some form of "Why did you select [Insert previous answer]?" Presenting the question this way eliminates any issues with the structure of the sentence.
Tip #6: Have a Plan for Redirection at the End
There is always the question of where to direct the respondent after he or she has completed a survey.
Sometimes this is dictated by where the respondents discovered the survey. A survey that uses an online panel will usually redirect a respondent back to the web page for the panel. Other cases allow the programmer to select anywhere they like, such as the research company's website, the client's website, or a page to provide a review.
If no redirection is set up in the programming, the respondent will likely end on a simple Thank You page. This could be viewed as a wasted opportunity depending on the objectives of the study.
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