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Looks Do Matter: Survey Formatting Made Easy

Looks Do Matter: Survey Formatting Made Easy

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Solid advice. However, we’ve all found our eyes inexplicably drawn to that book with the flashy, brightly colored cover. But being affected by looks doesn’t stop there. After all–“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Upon opening the book, our opinions of its contents are shaped and swayed by the illustrations–or lack thereof–the layout of the pages, the font, or even the citation method. These formatting choices tell us something about the story the book has to tell—and the way the words are formatted can sometimes speak louder than the actual words themselves.

This lesson applies to surveys as well. After all, as we’ve talked about before, every survey is a story and writing a good survey can be similar to writing a good book. Believe it or not, the way a survey looks makes a difference. How you format your survey can impact the data you get back. Solid formatting can ensure that your respondents pay attention. Shaky formatting can increase the chances of your responses dropping out from the survey.

So, how should your survey be formatted? You want it? You got it! We’ve put together a handy-dandy FAQ sheet based off the most frequently asked questions we get about survey formatting. Follow our advice below and your survey will not only be easy on the eyes, but it’ll get you great quality data every time. Win-win for everyone.

FAQ Starts Here!

  1. How long should my survey be? As short as possible to reduce dropout rates and prevent a lapse in attention. Less than 30 questions is ideal. Still, you need enough questions to make sure that you explore whatever you’re measuring thoroughly enough.
  2. How should I divide my survey up? Page breaks in your survey should be used to group like-minded questions together. Just as books are divided into chapters that present a cohesive chunk of a story, surveys should be divided into sections that present a cohesive chunk of a story.
  3. How many questions should go on a page? Each page should minimize the scrolling that your respondents need to do. Keeping a page to less than 15 questions is ideal. Be careful not to make your pages too short though.
  4. Should I use progress bars? No, progress bars are usually a bad idea. They make a survey feel longer and they’re also a little districting. If your survey’s only a couple pages long it may increase the completion rate, but it can also cause people to speed through your survey.
  5. Should I number things in my survey? No, we’d advise against numbering pages or questions in your survey. Don’t forget, page numbers and question numbers can be distracting for respondents and, like progress bars, emphasize the length of the survey.
  6. Should I use page titles? That depends. Page titles can be great in that they help your survey takers to understand why questions are grouped together or why you’re asking. Page titles can also, however, bias your respondents’ answers. (For example: Titling a page, “Risky Behaviors”, may not encourage folks to be honest about their drug use. Titling it “Past Behaviors”, doesn’t sound quite as judge-y.) The best solution is to come up with page titles that help focus your respondents without biasing them.
  7. Should I use page descriptions? Again, it depends. Yes–if they’re helpful. Page descriptions can be used to provide instructions, highlight a shift in tone or subject matter, or gives your survey takers a little bit of context before they jump into answering the question. If the page descriptions are too long and clunky, it can be distracting and even downright irritating. Relying too heavily on page descriptions can also lead to increased dropout rates. 
  8. Should I put a logo on my survey? One more “it depends”. Logos can be great in that they give your survey an “official” feel or ensure that the survey takers are filling out your survey in a certain frame of mind. On the flip side of this, however, is the potential for bias. Answers to questions about alcohol drinking habits will be different in a survey that’s branded with a vodka company’s logo and a survey branded with an anti-drunk driving non-profit’s logo. Make sure you think through the consequences of putting that logo–whatever it may be–on every page of your survey.

Have a formatting question that’s not answered in the FAQ? Don’t be shy, ask away in the Comments section below!

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