Part 3: Build basic framework to save some time down the road

This guide is narrow in scope—it mainly covers designing the survey. It outlines only some of the processes we use at the Regional Economic Studies Institute with the full survey design, planning, implementation, and analyses processes. One of the reasons we are focusing on design is because the most frustrating step in any research project is deciding where to begin. Consider it a metaphorical example of standing at the bottom of Mount Everest and looking up. If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a blank Word document talking through ideas with your dog, well, know you’re not alone. I’ve been there. I’m not proud of it. But honesty is a virtue.

Depending on your background, you may already have a solidified research topic you intend to study, or you may be yet to select a specific topic. If you are yet to select a topic, a great generalized guide can be found here.

After you’ve selected the generalized topic to study, a pivotal step in the overall survey process is organizing the project with some basic framework. This framework will allow you to further evaluate the suitability of a survey for your specific project, and it can save a lot of time and frustration down the road if you follow this path. And while the order in which you approach these questions may vary from how they are listed below, this provides a basic structure where you can craft the scope and specifics of your survey project.

  1. What do you want to learn about?
    • Start with your broad research topic
      • OK…I want to learn about trends in social media usage.
    • Now, get more specific
      • I want to know how trends in social media usage vary across generations.
    • It’s not survey time until you’re even more specific!
      • OK fine: I want to learn how generational cohort influences the frequency of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook usage
  2. Who do you want to learn from?
    (Potentially, who do you want to be able to say that your findings apply to?)
    • You can define this by many different means, such as basic demographics (for example, persons ages 7-85)
    • You can define this by geographic proximity (for example, persons living in Maryland)
    • You can define this by multiple shared characteristics (for example, persons ages 7-85 living in Maryland)
  3. Great! Now put that together into a few measurable statements!
    • I want to examine the frequency of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook usage among persons ages 7-85 living in Maryland.
    • I wish to know whether there are any differences in usage patterns between rural and urban Maryland residents.
  4. Now, what direct measurement objectives can you derive from those measurable statements? In other words, to learn about your now-narrowed topic(s), what information is going to be critical to collect? How are you going to measure that?
    • Age
      • For a study like this, knowing someone’s exact age is better than an age category (e.g., 18-24, 25-34, 35-44, etc.) The best way to ascertain this is to ask for someone’s year of birth.
    • Geography
      • You want to ask someone what state they live in to confirm that they are in Maryland (and, hence, eligible for the study)
      • You also want to know whether they live in a more rural or more suburban area, so you will want to collect information about where within Maryland they are located (for example, county of residence)
      • You may want to consider collecting data from residents in other states, or at least finding some similar research studies conducted in other states. Knowing patterns within Maryland is useful, but being able to compare these patterns with Virginia or Pennsylvania residents could further benefit the project goals
    • Social media platform used
      • You will want to ask respondents about the specific social media platforms used, with the realization that some respondents will not use social media at all, whereas others will use more than one social media platform
      • Subtopic: Activities – You may also want to ask what someone actually does when using a specific social media platform. Especially in the case of Facebook, there are like 500 gazillion different things a person could do, and most of their social media usage may be dedicated to a single activity, such as gaming.
    • Frequency of use
      • Depending on the study goals, you will have to define what frequency means for your specific project. Do you want to know the number of times a week someone uses each platform, the number of times a day, or something else?
    • Duration of use
      • Again, depending on the study goals, you may want to dive deeper than just frequency alone, and explore how long someone may use each platform for in a typical session.
  5. Are there any indirect measurement objectives to consider?
    • You can probably guess that there are a lot of other factors that may impact how people use social media. You might want to collect other information so you can examine their influence. For this example, what about:
      • Gender,
      • Employment status,
      • Attitudes towards social media,
      • Marital status
      • Political ideology
    • Indirect objective lists can get very long because so many different things can influence attitudes and behaviors – after you generate this list, you will likely have to choose only a limited number to measure because, as much as I may wish they would, respondents will not answer infinitely long surveys. Choosing the most important can be very challenging.
  6. Take everything above, and consider it relative to this question: “what do I ultimately want to accomplish?” – if you follow through with your basic framework, will you be able to achieve this accomplishment?

So now we know what we are studying and what we want to measure. But what question types are best suited to collect these measurements? Stay tuned for Part 4 in this blog series, where we will discuss some of the more common types of survey questions. In the meantime, if you have any questions on how to build your survey or want to find out how RESI can help you with your research, send me an email at