How to create a paper-based survey

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How to create a paper-based survey

Surveys in general

Surveys are a good way to get a little bit of information about a lot of different topics. They’re also good if you think you already know some of the answers. But they are especially good if you need to collect information in a way that can be translated into numbers.1 This means that they are a very useful way of gathering information for outcomes reporting.

To create a survey you need people to want to, and be able to, complete your survey for you. You also need them to be able to give you thoughtful answers to your questions. You have two choices about what kind of survey you will use to attract these people – online surveys and paper-based surveys.

This How To covers how to design an online survey and how to get the most responses possible. Some of it overlaps with How to create an online survey.

Traditionally surveys were done on paper but now there are lots of online options. But even in this era of technology research suggests that paper surveys get more responses than online surveys – it’s thought that a face to face request from the researcher is often the factor that influences people to fill the surveys in. That’s worth remembering if you are surveying clients. Distributing the survey through your staff, and ensuring confidential spots where the surveys can be left, might in many cases be the best way to go.

Purpose of survey

Write down the reason you want to do a survey, that is, what it is you want to know (eg, ‘is our service meeting people’s needs?’). Now write down what you need to find out in order to answer that first, most important question. These topics should break the main question down into parts like this:

What we want to know: is our service meeting people’s needs?

Breaking it down:

  • Are clients satisfied with the way we conduct assessments?
  • Does the way we do case coordination, support and referral work for them?
  • Do they think we are helping them achieve the outcomes they want?
  • Are there services clients want that we aren’t providing?

Make sure the subsequent decisions about who you survey and how your survey is structured relate closely to these basic ideas.

Choosing who to survey

Working out who to survey for reporting purposes might be as easy as deciding you want to survey everyone who is a member of your organisation, or everyone who participated in one of your programs.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your survey is to exclude people from having the chance to fill it in. This could be because you distributed your survey in such a way that only a few people could complete it, or you wrote it in such a way that not many people could understand it. Basically you need to give everyone who falls into the category of people that you want to survey an equal chance to fill it in. This means you have to try to predict all the things that might stop people from answering your survey and try to find ways around these obstacles.

Writing the questions

For more information on working out what questions you want to ask, how to write them and how to sort them into order, see How to write questions for a survey.

Check and double check

Get a variety of people to test your survey to make sure it makes sense to them. If you have instructions like ‘if yes, skip to question 12’ make sure they are correct.

Get feedback on every aspect of your survey. If you are sending it through the post get feedback on the message you have written to go with it and on the survey’s opening and closing messages.

Get as many responses as possible to your survey

You want as many responses to your survey as you can reasonably get. In the social sciences getting 50% of your surveys filled in and returned is the general goal. Here are some ways to make sure you get the biggest response rate possible.

If you are posting it in the mail:

Send a message to the people you want to survey telling them that the survey will be coming. This could be in person or by mail.

If it is by mail make your letter personal – use people’s names. Make sure your invitation is well-written. Keep it short but make sure it has this information:

  • Who you are and the purpose for the survey
  • The survey’s benefit to the person you are asking to complete it
  • The length of the survey
  • What confidentiality you are ensuring

If the survey is short emphasise that but be honest about how much time it will take.

Research has also found that small things, like using a pretty stamp and putting the letter into the envelope with the recipients’ name and address facing the back flap (so that people see their names as they pull it out) can make a difference to their willingness to fill a survey in.

Four or five days after you have sent your invitation letter send the survey with a second invitation to people to complete i. 

After a week send a reminder message with another copy of the survey.

After a further week send a final reminder that looks quite different – a postcard or a card instead of a letter perhaps.

Make the effort to remove the names of anyone you know has completed the survey from your mailing list for reminders.

If you are hand delivering it

Make sure you have somewhere people can leave the filled survey.

And overall

Give people enough time to complete the survey, and be flexible with your time frames. It’s recommended that you allow at least two weeks for people to fill in a survey.

You can consider offering incentives – gifts or prizes. This needs to be thought through.2 Incentives don’t have to be large – you can even make them so that people choose whether they want them or not and they will still increase response rates.

And finally, don’t put people off! Poor design can make people unwilling to respond to your survey; this is called non-response bias. This could happen if you ask about information that is very sensitive, or because your questions don’t make sense. 

Make sure the people who respond actually finish your survey

The percentage of survey starters who make it to the finish is called the survey completion rate. Getting people to complete the survey is very important because some of your most important questions will be towards the end. But it’s quite hard to achieve; a lot of people start surveys and give up. Here are some tips to help your completion rate be as high as possible:

  • Keep your survey as short as possible
  • Keep the purpose of the survey in your mind while you are writing your questions
  • Make your questions flow logically so people are clear about what you’re asking them to do and don’t get frustrated.

How many people should we send the survey to?

Obviously the more people you can survey the more accurate your information will be. If you think that the people you are surveying are going to have very different views then you’ll need to survey more to capture that variety.

If you are doing a survey of a broader group of the community and you want to be able to work out whether what you were concluding is true of all Tasmanians you have to consider your ‘sample size’ but unless your organisation has a funded research team it is unlikely you will do research on this scale. Just try to give everyone who falls into the category of people that you want to survey an equal chance to complete the survey and be clear about the size of the group you are talking about when you report the results.

Be accountable to the people who participated in your survey

Let the people who participated in your survey know its results. You can let people know through your newsletter or annual report, or through your website.

  • 1. If you want to gather new information, a wide variety of views or to learn about something deep or complex you would be better off using qualitative research methods, like a focus group or an interview.
  • 2. See Information on prizes and incentives