User Research Techniques: Surveys

English: This is an example Likert Scale using...

English: This is an example Likert Scale using five Likert Items pertaining to wikipedia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are surveys?

Surveying is a user research technique where researchers ask many participants to answer a few questions. Then, the researcher analyzes the answers. The question formats available include short answer, comment, multiple choice, check boxes, Likert scales, ranking, and more. Surveys are one of the most commonly used research techniques.

Why would I use surveys?

Surveys are often associated with marketing and psychology research; however, user experience researchers use surveys as well.

A very important note about surveys is that they are, by very nature, asking participants for their opinions and direct thoughts. Surveys do not gauge user behavior. For the user experience researcher, this fact means surveys are best used to gain preliminary insights, later confirmed or countered by other research techniques.

Surveys tend to focus on quantitative data over qualitative data, but due to their simple nature, surveys are for both.

Surveys are often used to fill out personas. If you review our five most important aspects of users, researchers use surveys to figure out goals (the users’ objectives) and resources (time, money, effort, & space). Surveys can also be used to rank user goals. Additionally, researchers use surveys to gain preliminary insight into user expectations, motivations, and attitudes; as these aspects are more behavior however its best to confirm findings on expectations, motivations, and attitudes with other techniques.

Surveys can also be used to improve the process of taking an action. Surveys can find if the user understands what the object or item at question is. The technique can also be used to decide what aspects of the object are most valuable to the user, and why.  Surveys can also be used during an action intermittently to find if users are getting stuck at a specific point. On the subject of taking an action, surveys are often joined with usability testing to find pain points.

How do I survey?

Surveying is relatively easy to do. For web and application designers and developers, a number of services will allow you design and carry out surveys within a matter of minutes. Researchers invite participants by link, pop-up, email, or on social media to engage participants.

User experience researchers can use all formats of questions. A key distinction is that while marketing and psychology often prefer multiple choice questions and Likert scales, user experience tends to benefits from more open-ended questions. Allow participants to enter more long form textual answers. Most surveying tools today will offer textual analysis features that can then be used to analyze the written responses in mass efficiently.

Avoid asking leading questions. Keep the language of the questions as neutral and direct as possible. Avoid negative language.

While psychologists may love long form surveys, internet users expect things quick and easy. Try to limit your surveys to three to eight questions in total. Most survey tools will allow you to show a random subset of questions to participants if you have more than eight questions.

In the invitation process, refrain from using the words ‘survey’ and ‘test’. Treat the user as the expert in the language you use to gain more participants. For example, “Participate in our survey” is less effective than “Help us improve our site with a few quick questions”.

Surveys combine with just about every other user research technique. The responses are cross-entabulated to create user segments. Cross-tabbing the results will aid in crafting experiences to different types of user.

Where can I go to learn more?

A variety of survey tools are available for user research.

  • SurveyMonkey – perhaps the most heavily used, its higher plans include textual analysis. Very customizable and easy to use. SurveyMonkey recently acquired Wufoo, an online form tool that is often also used for surveys.
  • SurveyGizmo – more feature rich than SurveyMonkey, but also more expensive.
  • Qualaroo – A more unique method, asks the user one question in a highly interactive format. Good for more behavior assessments.
  • Google Spreadsheet – A free option.

Because surveys are so commonplace, the marketplace has dozens of tools available; chances are one will definitely fit your needs.

Thoughts, comments? Let us know!