Surveys – why are we asking the question?

by | May 30, 2020

Surveys whether online or on paper are an engagement staple and there are a myriad of surveys out there asking all sorts of questions.

In fact, the familiarity and adaptability of the survey format is part of what makes them such a useful tool.  With such a familiar format, it can be easy to just “follow the template”. However it’s important to stop and think – why are we asking the questions and what do the answers really tell us?

Why use a survey?

Surveys can be used to collect baseline information, identify issues and solutions, gain design ideas and preferences from users and to present options for feedback.  A survey can work well when you need to:

  • Find out something you don’t know
  • Confirm something you do know
  • Gain feedback on things that are still open to interpretation

Our approach to surveys

When creating a survey for a project we take stock of what information is needed and how it can be obtained.  Audiences will generally engage when asked the right questions – but not when they feel like they are not being listened to or have already told you the information.

The following process helps ensure a survey doesn’t cover old ground unnecessarily, for everyone’s sake, when you could be talking about more important things.

1.   What additional information do we need?

First step is to establish the extent and quality of existing information.  What gaps exist and what existing information needs to be strengthened to meet the project objectives?

2.   Who else has been talking to the community?

Next, identify if there are other known sources of information that may be used to strengthen data and fill data gaps.  Check other sources.  Just because you haven’t asked, doesn’t mean that the information cannot be sourced from other places.

3.   What do we now need from our survey?

Once other options have been exhausted, identify the purpose of the survey based on what are now known information needs. The survey should be direct and targeted to the information required.

4.   Who do we need to talk to?

Identify which audience holds the necessary information and how they can best be targeted to engage with the survey.  This may drive your method (e.g. online or paper)

Doing your homework, thinking through what the project needs and who you need to engage with goes a long way towards a targeted survey that provides value to both participants and the project.

What does that look like in practice?

There is an art to crafting an effective survey question which adds value to the project outcome.  Below are some examples based on our project experiences.

Question sequence

When it comes to public space planning projects as well as service delivery, a series of questions about what people value, how they use a space or service and the relative importance of different elements helps direct planning and tell us what is important from a user perspective.  For example:

From your perspective, what are the most important characteristics of the site?

What activities do you currently undertake at the site?

What do you think would be the top three ways that the site could be modified or improved to enable these activities, or new activities, to be undertaken more often?

Design questions

From a design perspective, there will be some principles which are a given such as accessibility standards or safer by design which means some elements aren’t suited to questions.  For example:

“Where should there be more lighting?”  is something that often would be determined by detailed design, whereas:

“Are there areas the community would like to use more at night?” would provide insight into the desired future use of an area to provide lighting around.

Similarly, questions about how applicable character images are to a site can direct design as much by what respondents like as what they don’t like.

Focus on solutions

Focusing questions on solutions, while still acknowledging issues, is also a way to keep surveys constructive. For example:

“What are some of the problems to be addressed?” implies there are many problems and encourages respondents to list them with no constructive direction, whereas:

“How can the service be improved?” frames the question constructively and is more likely to elicit solutions.

Finally, whatever your survey or questions, it’s always a good idea to run it past someone outside the project just to double check it all makes sense.

If you would like more information, or to discuss further, please contact Emma: 

Emma Broomfield Director Governance & Mediation

Emma Broomfield

Director - Governance and Mediation

  0421 180 881



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