Part 2: Survey time every time? I think not.

In research, it’s always important for researchers to acknowledge their biases upfront—so, admittedly, I sometimes get a little caught up in surveys. Topics such as how the presence or absence of a midpoint on a scale affects responses, or how the psychology behind visual perception influences the correct execution of skip patterns are simply riveting to me. To a survey researcher, this is life in the fast lane. That said, not everyone may find this quite as exciting.

With my self-professed love of surveys, you might think if someone asks, “Well Zac, should we do a survey?” I excitedly scream “YES!” While certain times absolutely call for surveys, other times do not. Think of surveying like drinking a fine wine—it is something to be savored during the right occasion; however, drinking it every single day could potentially ruin the entire experience.

One situation that you should try to avoid is conducting a questionnaire when a survey is a poor match relative to the project specifics, because winding up in this scenario will make you want to pull your hair out. I’ve had a few of these…and I’m now bald. Below are some general pointers that emphasize when a survey may or may not be the optimal match for your research needs.

Your target group

  • It’s survey time if you know some information about your target group. Most importantly, do you have any idea how to reach them?
  • If you don’t know anything yet about your target group, you might need to do some other research first.

What do you want to know?

  • It’s survey time if you want to measure when, where, what, or how much. A good survey will ask respondents relatively simple questions, such as learning about attitudes, opinions, or past behaviors.
  • The more detail you need and the more complex your questions, the more challenges you may encounter during the survey. If you find yourself asking respondents to explain the processes behind these attitudes, opinions, or past behaviors, another form of research may be better suited to your project.

How much do you want to know?

  • It’s survey time if you can ask everything you need in short period. With general topic surveys, we tend to feel that a maximum completion time of about 5 to 10 minutes is ideal.
  • If detailed narrative responses are necessary (especially when asking about why), you may be better off with some other form of research, like interviews or focus groups.

Has anyone studied this before?

  • It’s survey time if existing information on your topic of interest doesn’t already exist or is out-of-date.
  • If the information you’re looking for has already been measured, you can likely save a lot of time and money by analyzing other data. For example, if you want to know how attitudes towards gun control changed between 2000 and 2014 among the general population, the General Social Survey has a wealth of data collected over a period of many years on this, and many other topics.

If you’ve decided a survey is a good match, we’ll next move into the process of building the survey framework itself, which will then guide us through the question formulation process. Want to learn more? Ask me your questions at, or read on in Part 3, coming soon!