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10 essential things when choosing online survey software

online surveyChoosing the right software for your online surveys gets harder. The market is flooded with several free products which, rightly or wrongly, get to the top of the search engines simply because more people want to do small, quick surveys than professional market research or customer feedback. To make it worse if you search for the ‘best online survey software’, you are likely to get a list or comparisons of the free products.

Who this blog article is aimed at

So, let’s be clear. This blog article is not aimed at people or organisations that wish to carry out a quick poll amongst friends, club members or even a department. There are plenty of free tools as well as Google Forms that can probably do the job at little or no cost. However, the more serious you become at carrying out surveys, the more likely you will need to consider the 10 essential things described in this article. This is not intended as an exhaustive list – there may be features that you need due to your own circumstances. These are, in my view, the minimum things you should, at least, consider seriously.

Scripting vs. User Interface is not discussed here!

This article is focused on functionality and what you need to consider to carry out online surveys. Therefore, the issue of comparing online software systems that use scripting rather than a user interface is reserved a future article.

1. Good security

Security isn't an exciting topic to start with, but is nonetheless becoming increasingly important. With GDPR approaching, storage of personal data needs serious consideration. Most online survey software providers will have a privacy and security statement on their website. I am suspicious of vague terms like we consider security to be important, I prefer facts like certifications, independent auditing and clearly worded policy. ISO27001 is the recognised gold standard for data and information security. If you are conducting a survey on behalf of anything bigger than a mid-size company, they are likely to want assurances, probably written assurances. Failing to consider this point at the outset could mean lost business later. If you are storing data, you will need to act responsibly.

2. Flexible themes

Response rates for online surveys are falling. Its easy to see why there are too many surveys. Your survey needs to stand out. Your chances of the survey being completed are substantially increased if the questionnaire looks good and has a good clean appearance. Good online survey software should provide you with templates and the ability to change the theme. It doesnt have to be super-complicated indeed, a neat clean look is often more attractive but it needs to look good. You should be able to adjust colours, layout and style easily. You dont need a design studio here, but enough to make the survey look good.

3. A range of question types

You are likely to want more question types than you might think at first. You will want, as a minimum, questions where one answer is allowed, questions where any number of answers are allowed, questions collecting numbers (with or without a decimal point), open text questions where a respondent can type what they wish, rating scales where you have a list of statements or items with the same responses, questions that can use pictures or video or have pictures as responses, ways for respondents to upload audio, pictures or video and questions where you can place selections in a rank order. Thats quite a list, but they will all come into play. You also need to be able to allow respondents to not answer some questions a surprising number of survey tools insist on an answer. Respondents sometimes cant remember or do not wish to divulge such information.

4. A variety of appearances

Making a questionnaire more interactive will encourage respondents to complete your survey, particularly where the subject matter is not especially interesting for the respondent. Here's two examples. Firstly, using images for answers can make a survey more interesting. Similarly, rating scales, if long or overused, can quickly become boring. Respondents may either give up or answer rating scales as quickly as possible with minimal thought or without reading the statements properly. Showing rating scales in more than one way within a questionnaire can make the task more engaging. There should be tools like sliders, sort piles where statements or items can be dragged into piles anything that makes it interactive.

Keep respondents engaged

Research conducted by John Puleston at Lightspeed showed that respondents are more likely to complete an engaging longer survey than a shorter boring survey. You, therefore, need tools to keep it interesting. Rating scales are tempting to put in, but they can produce the least accurate results and are the biggest cause of respondents dropping out.

5. Powerful routing tools/skipping questions

Complex questionnaire routing logic is important and often underestimated by anyone starting with a basic software tool. You may want to ask a question of those who have bought a brand, have seen it advertised in the last year but not in the last month. Such logic sounds simple, but may be beyond the scope of some systems. It should be possible to specify bracketed expressions using and/or/not etc.

6. Good question handling tools

This is a harder category to define. You will soon find that you need some flexibility on how questions are presented. If you have a long list of brands, for example, there will be a risk that respondents choose the brands nearest the top of the list. To balance this, it would be wise to randomise the order of the brands or, reverse the order for half the sample. Text substitution is another example, sometimes called piping. Lets say, you've chosen Weetabix as your favourite cereal at Question 1. The text for a subsequent question, especially if it is on a previous screen, must pull in the word Weetabix such as Why do you prefer Weetabix to other cereals? You really do not want the question text to read Why do you prefer the brand you mentioned at Question 1? Tools like this soon become essential if you are conducting good quality research. Another example is a list of brands with none of these at the end. A respondent shouldn't be able to choose a brand and none of these it doesn't make sense. There should be a good range of tools to cover this type of eventuality.

7. Flexible data outputs

I'm disappointed that some software tools do little more than provide limited analysis with the option to output data as a spreadsheet in Excel or CSV format. This is not good enough. Excel is a good tool for quick counts or lists and pivot tables offer a limited way of producing crosstabulations, but grouping codes together or combining answers together from more than one question is a tedious process and not suitable for a survey of more than a handful of questions. It should be possible to output data to Triple-S or SPSS as minimum. These are two formats that most survey analysis programs can read. Triple-S is an independent standard which over 50 software tools can read, whilst SPSS is a proprietary format that many software packages can read. Triple-S also includes an output to an ASCII data file as part of its standard.

8. Sufficient analysis and reporting

The amount of analysis and reporting that you need to do may be dependent on the field you are working in. However, as a minimum, you should be able to produce crosstabulations with each question analysed by several banner points e.g. age, gender, region, education grade. You should also be able to get quick counts percentages or figures for each question. You should also be able to filter tables selecting a sub-sample for example, under 35 year olds living in a city. Charting and reporting is desirable or maybe essential but, at the very least it should be easy to transfer or copy/paste figures into Excel/PowerPoint for graphical representation. These types of task should be very easy and not a convoluted process.

9. Mobile friendly

More and more internet usage is being made by smart phones and tablets. It is essential that your questionnaire looks good on a PC, tablet and smartphone. Respondents should have to scroll as little as possible to view responses this is particularly true with horizontal scrolling. A good online software product will allow you to customise the appearance for each type of device. It is sometimes important to abbreviate the text, for example, when the questionnaire is being completed on a smartphone. Images look fine on a PC or tablet but text may look better on a smartphone. A survey tool should be able to recognise the device being used and adapt satisfactorily as an absolute minimum.

10. Project sharing should be possible

This, for me, is a relatively new addition to my top 10. Much of our business internet experience stems from our personal internet experience. Sharing information has become the norm socially. Business data is no different, which means that being able to give access to colleagues, clients or other interested parties to your data is increasingly important. Google Documents offers something that an Excel spreadsheet doesnt even if an email with an attachment is the main difference. You, therefore, need a system that allows you to share survey data either free of charge or inexpensively. It is quickly becoming the norm.

So, there's my 10 essentials. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to add an eleventh one, which is gaining momentum.

11. Links to external databases

Having collected some important survey data, it is becoming more important to link it to external databases maybe, customer databases. Similarly, taking data from a database so that the data in the database can be used for selecting which questions are asked is becoming more important. In fact, any linkage or automation is becoming more important. It might be feeding results to a reporting system or a dashboard. Being able to send an automated email to a customer service centre might be a prudent action if a respondent expresses dissatisfaction. The world is becoming more connected as time goes on and these types of tool are becoming more important.

Now compare the software you are considering

How many of the 10 essential things does the software you are using or considering have? We have partnered with Snap Surveys because they passed our test of essential features. There are other products that will pass this test but many that don't and I believe you are likely to need all 10 essentials things before too long. In fact, Snap offers a lot more. A scorecard is the least you should do before buying any software or, even, using the free or trial version!

How to keep an online respondent engaged

The advantages and disadvantages of using free online software

Choosing the best software to start conducting online research

Phil Hearn
Author: Phil Hearn - Date posted: 21 November 2017
Category: online-surveys - Tags: essentials, tools, snap, online

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