How Do I Make a Good Survey? Tips for Every HR Person
Adelyn Moody, PhD
As someone who has professionally spent the better part of a decade learning how to be good at assessing people, statistics, data collection, and psychometrics in general, I understand how confusing it can all be. It may even feel debilitating to know where to start if you’re a HR professional without any experience in these sorts of things to be tasked with “keeping a pulse on our people.” I (of course) have to give the plug that when you can, hire expert consultants who approach surveys as their bread and butter every day as they can be very clutch and super insightful; however, I also get that you may not have the resources to do that…
So here are a few (relatively) straight forward tips to help you craft a decent survey for the best data and insights on your people!
Tips for Writing Better Questions
Fewer words are typically better. I, for one, am absolutely terrible at this tip. My advisor in grad school and I even had a running joke where he would routinely ask me to “concise down” things. I’ll try and do better here, if you can say it with less, that’s probably better.
Only ask one thing per question – Its tempting when you have a limit on how many questions you get to send out to your people to crunch a bunch of things you’re curious about all into one question. In psychology and psychometrics however, we call this having a “double-barreled” question, which is highly discouraged. The major reason is that when you get your responses back, you can’t be sure what the responder was rating within that question PLUS these types of questions are confusing to the person answering them. Confused respondents = confusing data = very limited interpretation ability. Pro tip - if you notice a question has a list separated by commas or includes the words “and” and “or,” these are all indicators of a double/triple-barreled question.
Simplify your language if possible – Typical best practice is to write questions and prompts that can be understood by someone with the literacy skills of an average U.S. 6th grader. This obviously helps increase accessibility of the questions and survey for more people (which is great!), but also benefits you in that it likely increases the number of people who actually complete and submit your survey. Remember, if it’s easier for people to understand and get through quickly, they’re more likely to actually do so.
Cut down the number of questions – When you’re first starting to put things together, feel free to brainstorm a whole list of questions and topics… but remember, just as with word count, fewer questions are usually better. If you don’t overburden respondents, they will be more likely not only to actually complete your entire survey this time, but they are also probably more likely to answer more future surveys for you too. Sometimes what this unfortunately means for you as an HR professional is to lean on top leadership for them to prioritize which topics they are actually most interested in learning about.
Don’t use jargon …most of the time. Unless you’re really trying to test how well someone understood a training with the jargon or you’re 129837219847 percent sure everyone reading the survey will know what you’re talking about, try to use more commonly understood language and words. The only major time I’d say this tip can backfire is if you try not to use an industry-specific term and by avoiding it actually cause more confusion. That case should be highlighted if you do the next tip…
If possible, pilot the survey in advance with a few people from your target audience. Now I know this isn’t always possible and adds to your workload, but if you can add this step, I can confidently vouch that it has been super-duper helpful to me. People are great at telling you if things are confusing to them or something sounds off. Take their feedback as gold and tweak where necessary. Remember that you are almost never the target person being surveyed, and people as a whole are terrible at putting themselves in others’ shoes. Take the guess work out for yourself by asking a few people directly instead!
Which Response Options Should I Give?
OK, now that you’ve written your stellar questions, how do you have people actually give their feedback?
With the plethora of different response scale options out there you’ve probably encountered, the shear number of choices out there can be a tad overwhelming. Obviously, there are more than what I outline below, but hopefully this should get you headed in the right direct with the most common response option types out there. These suggestions are all framed around what you’re trying to measure with each question.
Pro tip – usually you don’t need to give respondents too many response options for each question. Probably 3-6 options per question is where your sweet spot will lie.
If the question asks about something observable like a behavior, pair it with frequency response options (e.g., always, frequently, sometimes, never).
If the question is asking for someone’s opinion about a topic, typically phrase responses with regard to how much that respondent agrees with the statement (e.g., strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree).
If you’re interested in the level of someone’s emotional feeling towards something, consider including that exact feeling word within the response option (e.g., very happy, happy, neither happy nor unhappy, unhappy, very unhappy) to ensure they gauge their responses on the feeling you’re interested in and to eliminate ambiguity.
If the question relates to something absolute (e.g., “did you test positive for Covid-19 in the last week?”), consider using “dichotomous” response options with only two choices such as “yes”/”no” or “true”/”false.”
And if you’re less sure about what kinds of responses you’ll get back or want to make space for people to fill in anything you missed with your questions, consider asking an open-ended question (or a few) and letting them provide a qualitative (aka written) response. You can get some very rich information this way but remember that it is way more time-intensive for respondents, so use these types of questions sparingly.
While surveys can be complex and HR professionals don’t always get training on how to do them well, I hope this article helped highlight several concrete ways for you to approach creating better ones. Overall, aim to keep your questions simple and easy to understand and choose which response options you provide to people based on which pair the most appropriately with what you’re asking them. Happy surveying!