How to write surveys for social care research: part 2

In her second post about crafting surveys for social care research, Eleni Romanou talks about giving questionnaires the human touch

Girl with her hand in the airSurveys are immensely useful to researchers. They allow you to collect data in a succinct format which is easy to analyse. They can cover multiple topics quickly and efficiently. And, with the right design, they allow us to extrapolate what we’ve learnt from the data and say something new about the overall population we’re interested in.

That said no one would blame you if you felt surveys were somewhat dry and stilted. Can we really tackle sensitive issues with such an unwieldy, impersonal tool? I have co-designed numerous surveys over the years and have often wrestled with this. I am sometimes painfully aware that ploughing through a lengthy sequence of questions can be a wearying experience - even for the most motivated research participant.

What steps can we take to inject tact and sensitivity in our surveys and avoid wearing down respondents?

I have come across various tactics which can help. At their simplest these devices introduce interest and variety, breaking up repetition and putting respondents at ease. More sophisticated methods have the added benefit of enhancing respondents’ recall and understanding, resulting in more thoughtful and accurate data. I recommend using them – sparingly and in the right contexts – to boost engagement and create a more positive experience for research participants.

Vignettes are short hypothetical scenarios which survey respondents are asked to comment on. They provide an element of storytelling, which creates interest and engagement while relieving the monotony of a typical questionnaire. These fictional scenes and characters are tailored so they are realistic and research participants can relate to them, but it should also be obvious to participants that the story isn’t directly about them. This means they can feel sufficiently detached to offer honest opinions regarding the stories.

Vignettes can be used to draw out respondents’ views, judgements and beliefs. For example, the NSPCC took part in a research project looking at how social care professionals make decisions about referrals for potential child maltreatment (Rees et al, 2010). Participants were given vignettes about different scenarios and asked how they would respond. By varying specific elements of each vignette (such as the characteristics of the young person at risk) and comparing how participants responded to each hypothetical case, the researchers were able to see patterns in how professionals assess risk.

Incorporating a practical exercise in face-to-face surveys gives research participants a break from the interviewer’s voice and a chance to process questions at their own pace. This could be as simple as providing a pack of cards containing written statements which respondents can order, rank or arrange into piles (where each pile corresponds to a specific answer, for example ‘strongly agree’).

I used this device to surprising effect in a very sensitive context, with a group of people who were experiencing homelessness (Fitzpatrick, Bramley and Johnsen, 2013). Survey respondents were given a set of cards which were each labelled with experiences from their life history (they had previously disclosed these). With the help of an experienced and sensitive interviewer, they used these cards to piece together the sequence of events which led to their ‘multiple social exclusion’. This helped participants remember incidents, order their recollections and thoughtfully recreate the major milestones in their life.

Providing digital audio-recordings of survey questions and answer options can make young respondents and those with reading difficulties feel more at ease. Our prevalence study of child maltreatment used this approach when asking young people particularly sensitive or intrusive questions (Radford et al, 2011). When we piloted the survey we found it was easier for children to listen to recorded questions through headphones than read them, and this also gave them an added sense of privacy when parents were close by.

It’s important to give respondents a chance to answer some questions in their own words. This gives them the opportunity to voice their opinions and relieves any frustration they might feel if they aren’t able to articulate their thoughts freely during the survey. But open-ended questions can take more effort to complete – so I would recommend using them prudently, possibly just towards the end of a questionnaire.

Visual aids can add interest to your survey.

This works particularly well for online surveys where you can:

  • embed images, videos and graphics
  • ask respondents to rank or categorise their responses by dragging and dropping individual answers around the screen
  • get people to select ratings by moving the cursor along a sliding scale.

These devices break up monotony and add entertainment value, which is particularly effective with younger respondents.

Something to think about ...

Light bulbIt might seem inevitable that survey questions are rigid and dry: they are, after all, structured data collection instruments. But while some elements - such as psychometric measures or standardised demographic questions - cannot be altered, it’s worth considering how to add a human touch to your questionnaire.

The devices I’ve discussed give researchers considerable opportunities to improve the survey experience for respondents and to tackle sensitive topics imaginatively. And if respondents are engaged, they are more likely to give thoughtful and accurate answers – resulting in more meaningful data.

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  1. Fitzpatrick, S., Bramley, G. and Johnsen, S. (2013) Pathways into multiple exclusion homelessness in seven UK cities. Urban Studies, 50 (1): 148-168

  2. Radford, L. et al. (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC