How to Conduct Survey Research

Learning how to conduct survey research effectively not only enables you to collect high-quality data but also saves you time and money.

All successful surveys are easy to understand, conversational and are created with clear research goals in mind.

What is survey research?

Survey research is a method of measuring attitudes, opinions and behaviours by asking people questions.

These lists of questions are created to meet a particular aim, which varies based on the context of research. The population of interest will also differ between surveys based on the researcher’s goals.

For example, an academic survey would differ entirely from a customer satisfaction survey.

The former may aim to contribute to an area of social research. Whilst the latter would be conducted to improve customer experience.

Types of surveys

There are many different methods and types of survey research in use out there.

So, to save you some time, we’ll cover the most popular ones below to help inform your choice.

Methods of conducting a survey:

  • Questionnaires
  • Online surveys
  • Telephone surveys
  • Face to face interviews
  • Polls

Time-bound surveys:

  • Cross-sectional research
  • Longitudinal studies

Questionnaires (paper surveys)

Simply put, questionnaires are lists of questions for collecting information on a single subject.

Due to their narrowed scope, they’re great for identifying cause and effect.

For example, a transport company may want to collect feedback from its customers to determine the quality and efficiency of its service.

In analyzing that feedback, they can compile to most frequent concerns and effectively understand customer pain-points.

Typically, these are distributed in person to multiple respondents at a time.

The majority of questionnaires are made up of multiple-choice questions. But it’s also common to include open questions for respondents to provide more detail.

Online surveys

Online survey tools allow you to create and distribute questionnaires, collect data and analyze results within the same space.

This kind of multi-faceted approach reduces the bulk of effort involved in the survey research. On top of this, most software will automate the process of compiling your results into charts and graphs.

Technically, the set of questions created for online surveys is a questionnaire. Want to know more about the differences between surveys and questionnaires?

Telephone surveys

This method allows you to contact participants directly and enables you to collect responses instantaneously.

You’re also able to build relationships more easily, than in online methods, and gain a deeper level of understanding by encouraging people to expand on answers.

The other benefit of telephone surveys is that you can reach more senior audiences, who may not be as accessible via online methods or in person.

Face-to-face interviews

Interviews are often conducted face-to-face with participants and are a more personal approach to research.

Interviews with singular participants or groups are both viable options.

Although, these require a more strategic approach than other methods of survey research, as they can be easily derailed.

This is because what, how and when you ask questions can affect your participant’s answers.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t improvise follow up questions. Doing so can give valuable insight that you may otherwise have missed.

Learn more about research interviews.


Polls are single question surveys, which address a specific issue or idea.

Most commonly, you’d see them used for political research or as part of social outreach campaigns.

The ease with which they’re created responded to and analyzed make polls an ideal way to conduct simple research.

Longitudinal studies

Longitudinal studies are conducted over an extended period, to measure change over that period.

They take both quantitative and qualitative approaches but always focus on collecting data for a single subject.

For example, large companies or brands would run market research to monitor patterns and trends in their industry.

Cross-sectional research

Cross-sectional research collects observational data on a subject or phenomenon, to describe its nature.

These studies do not identify a cause, they simply describe the ‘state’ of something.

For example, local governments will conduct a census merely to describe the demographics of a population.

How to conduct survey research (in 5 steps)

  1. Identify your research aims
  2. Write your questions
  3. Distribute the survey
  4. Analyze results
  5. Create a report

1. Identify your research aims

Before writing questions for your survey, you should identify the aims of your research.

Doing so will help determine what questions you should ask and what data is most important for your goal.

Tip: If you’re conducting academic research, this would be the time to create a research question and hypothesize what your results may look like

2. Write your questions

There is a certain art to writing survey questions. The way you ask and the order you ask them in can influence a respondent’s answers.

Keep language simple, avoid any overly technical terms and ensure questions and answers aren’t ambiguous.

You also don’t want to ask too many questions, so it’s important for you to discern how many questions a survey should have.

If your goal is to collect feedback or build relationships, you may need to consult the most effective marketing questions for surveys.

If you’re creating an online survey or using a questionnaire, you should consider what types of question to use.

Question types:

  • Multiple Choice (single and multiple select)
  • Scales and sliders
  • Ratings and rankings
  • Matrices (tables)
  • Picture choice questions
  • Text fields

The above questions types can be split into two categories: open and closed.

Open-ended questions are those that allow participants to provide free form answers. These are usually descriptions of their experience and opinion.

Closed-ended questions require respondents to choose from a set list of answers. More often than not, these take the form of multiple-choice or scales.

A benefit of conducting survey research online is the feature set you’ll have access to.

For example; Question Logic allows respondents to skip questions that aren’t relevant to them. This will reduce the time taken to complete a survey and increase your response rate (don’t worry, we’ll get to this).

3. Distribute the survey

You may already have an audience in mind. Things like product feedback surveys can be sent to a customer contact list or hosted on your website.

Before you get started, you might want to explore the top strategies for boosting survey completion rates.

You should also consider whether you’d like respondents to submit multiple responses. As this could affect the weighting of your results.

Sampling methods

One of the most common methods in use is simple random sampling. This is where a population is targeted for research, and then a small sample is selected from that population at random.

Any inferences made in the study sample can then be representative of the target population.

If you’re looking for a more general audience, then it’d be fine to share your survey on social media or to a contact list. (Assuming you’re able to source one in compliance with data processing laws).

As paper surveys require hand delivery, it’ll be more difficult to get feedback from a diverse audience. However, as they’re generally narrower in focus, your respondents won’t need to be as varied.

If you require a more targeted survey audience based on specific criteria, we’d recommend buying survey responses.

4. Analyze survey data

If you conducted a paper survey or interviewed face-to-face, you’ll need to manually compile your data for analysis. An easy way to do this would be to input data into excel and generate some charts and graphs.

Alternatively, you could re-create your survey with an online tool and enter each respondent’s answers yourself.

This could be time-consuming but would give you access to that tools reporting features (such and filtering and comparisons).

When using an online survey tool, your data will have been compiled automatically. Now’s the time to head into your results and identify patterns and trends.

If you have an overwhelming amount of open feedback (text responses), you should consider using the ‘Bucketing’ technique.

You can learn the step by step approach to bucketing in this article about qualitative data collection and analysis.

However, if you only intend to ask closed questions then you will need to perform statistical analysis.

5. Create a report

Now it’s time to take everything you learned in your data analysis and translate that into actionable outcomes.

These outcomes should be a response to the aims you set before creating a survey or provide an answer to your research question.

Depending on the formality of your final report, you may want to include the following information:

Suggested Content for Survey Reports

  • Your initial aims/ goals/ research question
  • Methods of creation and distribution
  • How the survey (and the tool used to create it) was tested
  • How you selected your audience/ sample
  • Methods of analysis and a justification for their use
  • The results of your survey
  • Problems encountered and how they may have impacted the results
  • Limitations of your survey and methods
  • Conclusion and recommendations

It’s not likely you’ll need to cover each of these points unless you’re running an academic survey or running a survey for a client.

But, drawing on any of them will strengthen your interpretations and conclusion.

Should you conduct a pilot survey?

A pilot is a trial run of your survey but distributed to a smaller sample.

Doing so will help you determine the flaws of your content or structure, and preserve the integrity of results.

How to pilot a survey

There are two ways you can run a pilot survey. The first is to share it with a percentage of your intended audience or to test it with an easily accessible audience.

There are pros and cons to both these strategies. The first method allows you to get a small glimpse of what your results will look like and identify any issues your wider audience may have based on that small sample.

The second method is more convenient, as you’d likely be sharing it with friends or colleagues who can give quick feedback.

The aim of a pilot survey are to determine:

  • If your questions appropriate for your sample
  • If survey method you’re using going to meet your research aims
  • If your instructions clear and effective
  • If there any content or grammatical errors

Identifying errors in your survey before you launch to your target audience will save you time (and any financial loss) in the long run.

If you’re running telephone or face-to-face interviews, you may want to debrief your participants after the session. This will give you a clear understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Once you’ve implemented your pilot feedback, you’re free to either run another test or to distribute to your target population.

A potential issue with pilot surveys

If you choose to distribute your pilot survey to a small percentage of your target audience, you will have to answer this question.

Should you include those participants in your main survey?

“A common problem is deciding whether to include pilot study participants or site(s) in the main study. Here the concern is that they have already been exposed to an intervention and, therefore, may respond differently from those who have not previously experienced it.”

Edwin R. van Teijlingen and Vanora Hundley – The Social Research Update

The above quote is taken from an article called ‘The importance of pilot studies‘. It was written by researchers with a background in medical research but is relevant to our issue.

Our concern is that there may be a notable difference in the responses from those with experience in responding (pilot study participants) compared to those without (new participants).

The obvious choice might be to exclude the pilot group from the main survey. But, an issue arises here for researchers with a smaller target audience. As those additional responses may provide essential evidence for their research.

One way to overcome this issue is to run a mock pilot and mock survey. You could then monitor any differences in responses and use what you learn to decide whether to include pilot participants in your main survey.

That’s isn’t going to be a viable option for everyone.

Your other option is to perform a risk analysis for including those participants in both surveys. This analysis can be added into your survey report, to inform any stakeholders of your decision.

Best practices for survey research

  1. Keep questions short and clear
  2. Be conversational
  3. Use simple and clear language
  4. Don’t use double negatives
  5. Avoid jargon and acronyms
  6. Include definitions and explanations for more context (when necessary)
  7. Use the same language and questions across longitudinal studies

1. Keep questions short and clear

Only ask one question at a time and always use clear language. It’s also important that you avoid leading questions, as these create inaccurate data sets.

Videos and images are a great way of keeping respondents engaged and reducing mental taxation in the survey process.

2. Be conversational

When respondents have to plough through volumes of overly formal text, they’re likely to switch off.

These disengaged respondents are more likely to exhibit some form of response bias when making answer choices.

3. Use simple and clear language

As with any piece of content, you should cater to the widest audience possible. If you assume that all your respondents are educated to your level, you’ll alienate a portion of them.

By using simple and clear language, your survey will be more inclusive. This will go some way in improving your response and completion rates.

4. Don’t use double negatives

Double negatives are phrases where two negative words appear in the same clause, e.g. “I’m not unhappy”.

These switch the meaning of a sentence from a negative to a positive.

Their use can confuse participants and increase drop-out rates.

5. Avoid jargon and acronyms

The use of subject-specific terminology, undefined abbreviations and other complex terms will alienate some of your audience.

It’s important to consider your respondents’ point of view when writing questions. This is where running a pilot survey would be beneficial.

6. Include definitions and explanations for more context

Make no assumptions about what respondents know. If your questions require some prior information or understanding, you should provide it.

However, the information you provide mustn’t influence your respondents’ answer choices.

Furthermore, we recommend that you include this information in a space outside of question fields. You’ll want them to have high readability, and too much text can compromise that.

7. Be consistent in longitudinal studies

Always use the same language and questions when conducting a longitudinal study survey.

To effectively measure change over time, you have to ensure that your survey format and content never changes.

Conclusion: How to conduct survey research

When you conduct survey research, you should always consider your participants’ points of view.

In doing so, the majority of people will remain engaged throughout and provide you with a high-quality data set.

You can conduct successful survey research by:

  1. Identifying set aims and goals for your research
  2. Writing clear and simple questions
  3. Keeping your survey as short as possible
  4. Selecting an appropriate survey type and method of delivery
  5. Choosing a sample that is representative of a population
  6. Taking an objective approach to data analysis

The best way to test whether you’ve achieved all of the above is to run a pilot survey.

This doesn’t have to be overly formal, but we do recommend at least testing with a group of colleagues or friends.

If you need more control over who is responding to your survey, we’d recommend using some trap questions. These ensure that your respondents are paying your survey their full attention.

When you conduct survey research effectively, your results will always provide actionable insights.