Hand with pen writing

What is a survey?

A survey is a way of collecting information that you hope represents the views of the whole group that you are interested in hearing from.

There are three main types of survey:

Case study surveys

Case study surveys collect information from a part of a group or community, without trying to choose them for overall representation of the whole group.

Sampled surveys 

Sampled surveys ask a sample portion of a group to answer your questions. If done well, the results for the sample will reflect the results you would have gotten by surveying the entire group.

Census surveys

Census surveys require you to give your survey questionnaire to every member of the group you want to hear from.  This will give you the most accurate information about the topic and group you’re interested in hearing from. 

Why should you conduct a survey?

You can collect information about the behaviors, needs, and opinions and ideas of your target group by using surveys. Surveys can be used to find out attitudes and reactions, and to measure the satisfaction of your user group.

You can use surveys to measure ideas or opinions about your service. For example, you may want to know what users think about your services, what new users expect from your services, and whether users are satisfied with what you provide.

Deciding whether to conduct a survey

There are advantages in doing surveys, but you should consider whether a survey will be the best way of obtaining the information you need. Even though surveys are a useful method of gathering information, they are not the only way. You will need to decide whether a survey will produce the information you need. The information you need may be obtained through other means, such as informal unstructured conversation that takes place in the course of another activity; focus groups; interviews; or observation.

When should you conduct a survey?

A survey may be your best choice when:

  • You need a quick and efficient way of getting information
  • You need to reach a large number of people
  • You need statistically valid information about a large number of people
  • The information you need isn't readily available through other means

Surveys: pros and cons

Advantages of written surveys:

Large numbers of people can give their input

  • Cost efficient
  • People can respond at their convenience
  • You can reach a wide range of respondents
  • they are easily administered; generally the person can fill them out and return them at their convenience
  • they tend to be more confidential; people can fill them out privately
  • they may be less threatening or embarrassing for the person if very personal questions are involved

Disadvantages of written surveys:

  • written questionnaires require respondents to be functionally literate
  • questionnaires need to be written in all languages spoken by people using the service
  • if a people misunderstands a question or interprets it differently than staff intended, the staff can't catch this problem as it occurs
  • the method may seem less personal, so people may not feel it is important to answer the questions accurately and thoughtfully, if at all

Using online surveys

Surveys can be paper based or posted online. Online surveys can be very cost effective, and time efficient.  There are a range of additional benefits to online surveys:

  • Ease of data gathering - The survey questionnaire can be rapidly deployed and completed.
  • Minimal costs - Traditional survey methods often require you to spend thousands of dollars to achieve the optimal results. On the other hand, studies show that conducting an Internet survey facilitates low-cost and fast data collection from the target population. Sending email questionnaires and other online questionnaires are more affordable than the face-to-face method.
  • Automation in data input and handling - With online surveys, people are able to answer the questionnaire by means of inputting their answers while connected to the Internet. Then, the responses are automatically stored in a survey database, providing hassle-free handling of data and a smaller possibility of data errors.
  • Increase in response rates - Online survey provides the highest level of convenience for people because they can answer the questionnaire according to their own pace, chosen time, and preferences.
  • Flexibility of design - Complex types of surveys can be easily conducted through the Internet. The questionnaire may include more than one type of response format.

How do you prepare a survey?

Decide on the purpose of the survey

If you have decided to do a survey, you must first be sure exactly why you're doing it. What questions do you want to answer? Specific questions will need to be designed for each service, however some generalised questions that are aimed as seeking information about the customers experience may include:

  • What have you found useful about your work with (service)?
  • What do you think they might do differently?
  • What positive things do you hope they might do?
  • Was the worker always on time / sometimes on time/ never on time?
  • If a problem cropped up that made them late, did someone let you know?
  • Did you feel they listened to you?
  • Did you feel they understood your point of view? 
  • Did they help you understand the options available to you/ what might be expected of you / how you could take more control of the situation?

Helpful hints for writing survey questions

  • Clarity is key -- the question should mean the same thing to all respondents. Avoid terms like several, most, and usually have no precise meaning and should be avoided.
  • Short items are preferable.
  • Avoid negative items.
  • Avoid double-barrelled items, which require a person to respond to two separate ideas with a single answer.
  • Do not use technical words or jargon.
  • Avoid bias or leading questions.


Online survey tools

There are many online survey forms that you can use to connect directly with customers.  Start by thinking about the needs of your service or organisation. If you’re looking for a quick, short survey, one that may have a just a few questions to use with customers in crisis, one of the free or low cost tools may suit your needs. In fact, a more sophisticated survey package is likely to just be considerably more difficult to use, so for ease and accessibility, keeping it simple may be very important.

To keep things simple and free, Google forms is a useful tool. Google Forms is 100% free and offers much more than other free survey tools.

Alternatively, if there are others to consider:

  • Typeform There are some useful features in the free version, especially the unlimited questions and answers.
  • Super Simple Survey lets you use a variety of icons that may be suitable to use (with support) with people with impaired capacity.
  • Survey Monkey  is one of the best known tools, however you must have a paid account if you want to export your data.
  • Client Heartbeat is a paid version that offers some much more advanced reporting features.
  • Survey Pro is a paid online service
  • LimeSurvey is a free open source tool
  • Checkbox is a paid  service that also allows the use of simple emoticons and sliding scales
  • Opinio is a paid service that provides many options including mobile platforms and step by step guides.


Many of the online survey tools are not suitable for people who have accessibility needs. Australian researchers Gottliebson, Layton and Wilson identified that “most commercially available online survey tools were not actually ‘useable’ for many of the people with disabilities”. (P402, 2010)

Keep in mind that no survey tools will do the design work to ensure the survey will collect effective, high quality data. It’s important to think about the questions that will capture the information you want about the customers experience. Ensure the determiners are considered when designing survey questions.

Review: surveys

Asking customers to complete brief written surveys is probably the most common strategy used by non-profit organisations to seek feedback about customer satisfaction The greatest advantages of this method of data collection include:

  • they are easily administered; generally the customer can fill them out and return them at their convenience;
  • they tend to be more confidential; customers can fill them out privately and return them to a locked box; and
  • they may be less threatening or embarrassing for the customer if very personal questions are involved.

Some of the disadvantages of written surveys include:

  • written questionnaires require respondents to be functionally literate;
  • questionnaires need to be written in all languages spoken by customers using the service;
  • if a customer misunderstands a question or interprets it differently than staff intended, the staff can't catch this problem as it occurs; and
  • the method may seem less personal, so customers may not feel it is important to answer the questions accurately and thoughtfully, if at all.

Adapted from Sullivan, C. 2001 Evaluating the outcomes of domestic violence service programs: some practical considerations and strategies. National Electronic Network on Violence Against Women

What are others doing?

Listen to Emma Taylor, who works in self-directed disability support, talk about her use of a survey as a tool to gather customer feedback.

Marlene Butteriss from the Queensland Council of Social Service (QCOSS) interviewed Emma as part of the customer experience project.

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