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CHAPTER 2 Planning the Online Survey Asound plan is essential to the success of any research endeavor. Survey research is a process, and each element impacts the others. Research objectives guide questionnaire
CHAPTER 2 Planning the Online Survey Asound plan is essential to the success of any research endeavor. Survey research is a process, and each element impacts the others. Research objectives guide questionnaire format; questionnaire format determines the types of questions that may be used; the types of questions used determine data analysis; data analysis reflects research objectives; and all this is bound by time, budget, and ethical considerations. The first step in the planning process is to articulate a plan for the survey. This plan will be a handy map to which you can continually return as you address the individual components of the survey planning process. These outlines are also particularly useful when the survey is part of a team research project. In this chapter, we consider the major elements of a survey plan namely, choosing the type of digital survey you will use, selecting survey software, writing clear project objectives, preparing timelines, and addressing ethical considerations important in the online survey environment. Surveys surveys can be economical and fast to create and deploy. When we refer to surveys, we mean surveys created using survey software and accessed by respondents through a link in an invitation. These are among the most common online surveys because anyone who has access to online survey software, such as SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang, or InstantSurvey, can create an survey. According to an August 2010 report on the Pew Internet and American Life Project website, 79% of Americans use daily (Smith, 2010). This is a substantial proportion of the overall population and renders surveys 14 Chapter 2 Planning the Online Survey 15 delivered by a viable option for many projects. However, percentages of users vary by age, racial/ethnic group, income, and educational attainment (see Table 2.1). It is, therefore, important to consult current data regarding the demographic makeup of individuals who use Internet and to make sure this distribution method is appropriate for the population you are considering surveying. Table 2.1 Internet Use in the United States by Demographic Characteristic Characteristic Percentage Men 79 Women 79 Race/Ethnicity White, non-hispanic 80 Black, non-hispanic 71 Hispanic 82 Age Household Income Less than $30,000/year 63 $30,000 $49, $50,000 $74, $75, Educational Attainment Less than high school 52 High school 67 Some college 90 College+ 96 (Continued) 16 Conducting Online Surveys Table 2.1 (Continued) Characteristic Percentage Community Type Urban 81 Suburban 82 Rural 67 SOURCE: Based on data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, NOTE: Data are based on telephone interviews with 2,258 adults living in the continental United States. Interviews were in English and Spanish. The following are specific advantages and disadvantages of surveys. Advantages Speed. An questionnaire can be sent to hundreds or thousands of people by entering or importing a distribution list and hitting the send button. Responses typically are received quickly, and data can be described and distributed via the software tool in real time. Economy. Most software vendors (such as those mentioned earlier) offer free versions of their services. The free software often limits the number and types of questions and responses allowed. If these limitations pose a problem, a low-cost, monthly contract may be purchased that will expand the options and offer the survey creator the vendor s full suite of tools. Convenience. Online survey software allows researchers to create the questionnaire, write the invitation, upload a distribution list, and send reminders directly from the software. In most cases, it is a seamless approach that automatically inserts such elements as the survey link and a link for respondents to opt out of the survey if they so choose. Simplicity. Online survey software of the type we have been referencing does not require technical expertise on the part of the survey developer. Tools such as SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang are user-friendly, offer a selection of survey templates to jump-start the questionnaire creation process, and contain help features that include step-by-step instructions, tutorials, and online chats with support staff. Chapter 2 Planning the Online Survey 17 Disadvantages Availability of a sampling frame. You must have access to an list for the population you wish to survey. If you do not have such a list, you must be able to purchase or compile one. Unsolicited (i.e., spam). Most programs use filters to flag unsolicited messages as junk mail. Some filters will not accept bulk s. With the proliferation of surveys, marketing messages, online newsletters, and more, spam filters have become sophisticated and can permit users to block any message not from a preapproved sender. This often results in a large number of invitations bouncing back to the sender. Gray- and Blacklisting. Along with the ability to block unsolicited messages, many service providers use programs that search for patterns of bulk s coming from one source and perform other functions, such as searching subject headings for certain key words or identifying the domain from which the messages originate. When potential spam is detected, the sender (in this case, the software vendor) may be placed on a gray- or blacklist. With graylisting, every time the service provider receives a message from an unknown sender, it rejects the mail with a try again later message. Spam software will not try again later, and legitimate messages will eventually make it to the intended recipient. However, messages may be delayed as much as 72 hours before finally arriving at their destination, undermining the advantage of collecting survey results quickly. In the extreme case, a sender s server may be blacklisted and messages from that server will not be delivered at all. Surveyors can inquire about a vendor s history with gray- and blacklisting and should ask about the mechanisms in place to combat this issue. This will help but will not guarantee success, because providers regularly upgrade their protocols for identifying potential spam. Too many surveys. Because online survey software is free or inexpensive, convenient, and easy to use, many people who otherwise would not have chosen to conduct a survey are opting to collect data via surveys. The large volume of surveys appearing in recipients inboxes has created a problem for the industry, as potential respondents experiencing survey overload are ignoring invitations. Internet/Intranet (Website) Surveys Surveys posted on websites can be created using the same software applications used to create surveys. The difference is that, instead of ing a link to a sample of respondents, these surveys appear on a webpage, either as a link posted somewhere on the page or as a pop-up 18 Conducting Online Surveys or crawl-in link. They have many of the speed and convenience advantages of surveys and offer all the same questionnaire features, plus the ability to collect data from individuals for whom you may not have a sampling frame. Advantages Speed. If posted on a popular website, a questionnaire can potentially gather thousands of responses within hours. Audience. You can post the link on numerous websites with the permission and cooperation of the sites owners. This might broaden your audience, as the link could appear on sites whose users consist of researchers, teachers, children, students, employees, and so on. Economy. Compared with other modes of survey data collection, website surveys are the most economical means by which to collect data from large numbers of respondents who may be geographically dispersed. After the initial set-up expenses (software, web hosting, etc.), it costs no more to target large samples than small ones. The ability to ask sensitive questions. Website surveys are similar to other forms of self-administered surveys in that no researcher is present and participants complete the questionnaire at their own pace. This also is true of surveys; however, the survey that appears on a webpage is not linked to respondents addresses and, therefore, affords participants an added measure of anonymity, allowing them to more freely and honestly answer the questions. Ability to evaluate websites. There is perhaps no better way to ask users to evaluate a website than to do so while they are navigating the site. If your research objectives include testing the usability of a webpage, for example, you could include a survey link on the page you wish to evaluate. Visitors can provide feedback about their experience while still on the site. Disadvantages Limited populations. Internet use is quickly becoming the norm in America, and the number of people using computers and accessing the Internet continues to increase each year. There is some disagreement about the exact number of households online; however, one fact is clear: The online population does not reflect the general population of the United States (see Table 2.1). An upward bias in socioeconomic status is evident among Internet users, and they are not evenly represented across racial/ethnic groups. This precludes the use of website surveys for projects focused on populations not well represented online. Abandonment of the survey. Respondents can easily quit in the middle of a questionnaire. To minimize the likelihood of respondents quitting, questionnaires should be as short as possible that is, ask only questions related to Chapter 2 Planning the Online Survey 19 the project objectives. Avoid the temptation to add a few more questions because you re conducting the survey anyway. It also helps if the questionnaire is easy to navigate and fun to complete. Pretesting the questionnaire will provide feedback about ease of navigation, and an understanding of the target population will aid in the inclusion of items that are interesting and relevant to the respondents. Offering incentives may help prevent abandonment of the survey. Limited information about respondents. Unlike an survey, for which you may have existing information about the respondents for example, demographic characteristics, the department in which they work, their purchasing habits this information will not be available for respondents to website surveys. Surveyors can, of course, collect this information on the website questionnaire, but the added questions will lengthen the survey and the validity of the data cannot be verified. Limited sampling options. The majority of surveys that appear on websites are of the volunteer opt-in variety. That is, any site visitor who happens across the link or clicks on the survey icon may participate. There are some opportunities to randomly present the survey to a subset of site visitors; however, for the most part, sampling for these surveys is limited to nonprobability sampling options. The most serious consequence of this limitation is the inability to generalize findings based on the survey results. Mobile Surveys Several years ago, the term mobile survey referred primarily to a series of text messages sent to respondents mobile phones. Participants responded to these surveys by selecting from among a series of options. Open-ended questions were not used, and the ability to route respondents to different sets of questions based on previous answers was limited. The widespread adoption of easy-to-use smartphones most notably the Apple iphone and other mobile devices, such as tablet computers, has resulted in a shift in the concept of mobile surveys. Obviously, researchers still conduct text-based mobile surveys, but this format is quickly being relegated to the realm of eventsatisfaction and live-audience feedback polls. The range of capabilities available on most smartphones and tablet PCs, combined with high-resolution displays and usable keyboards, has greatly expanded the options for mobile surveys. Software vendors have been quick to recognize the potential, and many now offer the ability to optimize just about any fully functioning online survey for smartphones and tablet PCs. As with the other two classes of online surveys, this opportunity to reach new audiences comes with some challenges. 20 Conducting Online Surveys Advantages Potential to reach new audience. Survey participants who are not likely to respond to an or website survey may be more inclined to acknowledge and participate in a mobile survey. Speed. Because many individuals keep their mobile phones with them most of the time, in-the-moment surveys (e.g., during an event) are possible. Questionnaires can be feature rich. Surveys created for smartphones and tablet PCs can include images, multimedia features, and skip logic. Use of device features. Surveys can take advantage of the native features of mobile devices, such as cameras, sound recorders, and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) locators. Disadvantages Audience reach. Smartphone adoption in the United States is projected to reach 50% by the end of Although an impressive proportion, it clearly does not include everyone in some target audiences. The socioeconomic factors associated with smartphone adoption and use limit the types of individuals who can be surveyed. Number and types of questions. Surveys designed for smartphones and tablet PCs are not limited to text. Technically, they can include many of the features you might include in any other online survey. However, the nature of the devices (i.e., they are mobile, and so are their users) dictates that surveys be short and question types be limited to those that can be answered quickly. May be viewed as intrusive. Mobile phone users consider many factors when selecting a particular device, but the ability to respond to surveys is probably not among those considerations. Annoying an organization s members or customers with survey requests to their mobile phones could result in participants permanently opting out of all surveys sent from the organization. Purchasing Survey Software and Selecting a Web Survey Host To conduct an , website, or mobile survey, you will need software and the services of a web-based survey host. Hundreds of commercial software programs and web-based survey hosts are on the market. Web-based survey hosts (also known as application service providers, or ASPs) typically offer customers a full range of services, including the ability to create questionnaires, conduct surveys, analyze data, and produce and share reports, all via the company s website. Some web survey companies offer the option of purchasing software that can be used locally on the researcher s computer or local network; questionnaires can be uploaded to websites or sent to Chapter 2 Planning the Online Survey 21 respondents as a link in an invitation the same way that software is used on a vendor s hosted site. This option leaves researchers responsible for installing the software and providing their own technical support for the system. Many of the ASPs offer free or trial versions of their services, and most software vendors provide pared-down versions of their full packages for customers to try. The multitude of commercial survey software packages and web-based survey hosts available, at many levels of complexity, greatly reduces the need for individuals or organizations to develop proprietary software applications for conducting surveys. Although in some situations a company may need specialized features or perhaps heightened security, most requirements can be addressed by working with the software vendor to customize existing software to meet the organization s needs. The challenge comes in selecting an appropriate software and online survey host for your needs and level of technical expertise. Although we will not evaluate specific vendors here, we will address some important considerations for choosing software and a survey host. Expense. Survey software and ASPs vary greatly in price. The range starts at $0. As mentioned previously, the free software available online is typically limited; questionnaires can contain only a few questions (usually about 10), not all question types are available, and the number of completed surveys allowed in a given period of time is also limited. Providers such as SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang offer a variety of premium or professional subscriptions that range in price from about $200 to $800 annually. With this type of account, users generally have access to all available question types; the number of questions that can be included on a questionnaire and the number of responses that can be collected are unlimited; and semicustom features, such as the ability to manipulate questionnaire templates and redirect respondents to your website at the end of the survey, become available. There is no upper limit when it comes to the price of survey software. The annual license fees can be as much as $25,000 for highly complex software packages. This option allows for unlimited customization of the software, for which there is often additional expense. Although costly, the surveys created with semicustom or custom software will have the precise look and feel required, and custom programming will make available any question types and response options desired. Moreover, security concerns associated with the transfer of data can be addressed during the development process, and additional features, such as the ability to automatically update database tables with respondent information, can be added. 22 Conducting Online Surveys The issue of cost is usually one of finding a product that contains the features you will actually use for the lowest price. Custom software packages may be appropriate if your needs are specific and you have a lot of lead time and a large budget; however, you may find that an off-the-shelf product is adequate if your survey requires only basic features. Clearly, the more you pay, the more you get, but if you do not make use of those added features, they will slow down the questionnaire development process, as you will have to navigate around them. Ease of use. Look for survey software that has an easy-to-use design interface with drag-and-drop capabilities for questions and scales, notes, and other text. Wizards that walk users through the survey creation process and questionnaire templates can be useful if you are new to using survey software. You also should be able to save a survey you create as a template so that you may use it again in the future. Question libraries also can be valuable for new survey researchers. These libraries typically include standard demographic and opinion items and can speed up the creation of the questionnaire. A valuable feature is the ability to create your own question library that includes your commonly used questions and response sets. Using the free- or limited-trial version of the software will provide an opportunity to test the usability of the product. The full version will offer more features, but the user interface will be the same as that of the limited version. Question number, formats, and response options. Check for the capacity to ask a wide variety of questions using different response options. Question formats that should be included are single response, multiple response, scale response (i.e., agree disagree; 1 5 points, etc.), and matrix response. Radio buttons, check boxes, and open-text boxes are basic and should be included in any online survey software package. Another useful feature allows surveyors to randomize the order in which response options and questions are presented to respondents; this is essential if you believe order effects may be associated with the way responses are selected. Also desirable is the ability to choose whether respondents will be allowed to skip questions or whether answers will be mandatory for continuation of the questionnaire. Forcing responses can lead to abandonment of
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