UX Mini-lesson: Surveys

A picture of a folding ruler, which I'm using as a metaphor for surveys as a measurement tool

Surveys are probably the most used but least useful research tool. It is ever so tempting to say, “lets run a quick survey” when you find yourself wondering about your customers. Surveys result in “hard numbers” to look at, and modern web-based survey tools have made surveys cheap to produce. But as anyone who has ever tried running a “quick survey” can attest, they rarely, if ever, provide the insight you are looking for.

In the words of Erika Hall, survey’s are “too easy”. They are too easy to create, too easy to disseminate, and too easy to tally. This inherent ease of creating surveys masks their biggest flaw as a research method: It is far far too easy to create biased, useless survey questions. And when you run a survey littered with biased, useless questions, you either (1) realize that your results are not reliable and start all over again, or (2) proceed with the analysis and make decisions based on biased results. If you aren’t careful, a survey can be a complete waste of time, or worse, can lead you in the wrong direction entirely.

However, that being said, I have found surveys to be useful in exactly two situations:

  1. When I need to gather demographic data that I can’t obtain otherwise
  2. When I work for a client who will send an email blast with a survey link, but otherwise wont help me recruit research participants.

If you ever find that launching a survey is the only way to move the research forward, keep these tips in mind.

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