The Anatomy of an Effective Online Survey

In order to design an effective survey, you have to understand the fundamentals. Learn how to build a quality survey that captures valuable insights.


Chris Boeckelman

January 6, 2016

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Do you remember playing Operation as a kid? Ever so carefully, you tried to remove the funny bone only to hit the wall, sound the buzzer and jump a mile high from the cranky noise the game made.

Well, creating a online survey is a lot like playing Operation. You want to keep all the pieces of the puzzle in the right place without bothering respondents to a point where they sound an alarm and stop answering your questions.

To create an effective survey, you have to understand the anatomy of one. So, using the body parts found in Operation, here’s the anatomy of an effective survey.

The Qualities of an Effective Survey

An on-brand introductory page

The introductory page represents the wishing bone. The first page of a survey sets the tone, and provides a first impression. And, let’s be honest, you’re wishing every respondent will take the survey, hence the wishing bone.

To do that, an introductory page should have the following:

  • The survey title

  • The brand’s name and logo

  • A call to action to begin the survey

It’s also a good idea to personalize the survey on the introductory page. By simply adding a respondent’s name, you can drive response rates up.

Here’s an example of an introductory page from a sample survey created by GetFeedback customer, The North Face:

Strategic survey questions

Questions are the bread basket of the survey. The bread basket is one of the main pieces of anatomy in the game of Operation, just like questions are the main piece to a survey.

You can choose from a variety of question formats. From multiple choice to ratings scales, you can use several formats within a survey to accomplish your goal. There are three main types of questions. Here’s a quick guide to help you understand when to use each type of question.

  • Multiple choice questionsUse multiple choice questions when you have a set number of answers that you can define. If you’re looking for quantifiable data that’s easy to read and depict visually, multiple choice questions are a good option.

  • Rating scalesWhen you want to gauge customer behavior or attitude, a rating scale that asks customers to rate their experience on a scale of 1-5, for example, is best. Like multiple choice questions, these responses will provide quantifiable data.

  • Open-endedIf you want to identify unknown problems, or require specific feedback from respondents, go with open-ended questions. These questions provide deeper insights and more details that multiple choice or scaled questions can’t offer.

How do you craft the right questions? Here are some tips to keep respondents moving through the survey:

  • Each question should focus on one main point.

  • Keep questions short and easy to understand.

  • Break complex questions into multiple parts.

  • When using a scale, be sure to explain how it works.

  • Make sure every question provides a response that fulfills the survey’s goal.

Take a look at the survey question below from The North Face. It’s a short, simple question that respondents can quickly access and move on to the answers.

Straightforward response choices

The answers that respondents can select from represent the writer’s cramp of the board game. You have to create a variety of well thought out choices in order to collect valuable information from survey participants, which might give you writer’s cramp.

Of course, responses depend on the kind of questions that are asked. With multiple choices questions, you’ll need to create a series of answers that cover every possible scenario. Out of all the possible question types, creating multiple choice responses is the trickiest. If you don’t believe you can cover every possible answer, consider adding an ‘other’ box that allows respondents to fill in their own answer.

Responses for scaled or ratings questions are simple because all you need is a sliding scale, and open-ended questions don’t require response choices at all.

When you’re crafting responses for multiple choice questions be sure to:

  • Cover all possible answers

  • Keep responses short

  • Use images whenever possible

  • Limit the number of responses to 4-6 to avoid overwhelming the audience

With multiple choice questions, a respondent’s answers can dictate which questions are asked. Based on a response that’s selected, a follow-up questions is triggered that’s tailored to that person’s interests.

Take a look at the response options in the North Face survey that we mentioned above. Notice there is a limited number of response options, and stand-alone images are used rather than text. Images enhance a survey; so don’t skimp on the visuals.

Pleasant survey images

Every survey needs images. In our Operation anatomy, images represent the butterflies in stomach. Why? Thinking of butterflies in your stomach is a visual cue, which is what you’re trying to achieve by adding images to your survey.

You have to find the right balance when it comes to images. A large, flashy image, creates sensory overload; a small, black and white image creates ‘under stimulation,’ which is a nice way of saying it’s boring.

Background images

With GetFeedback surveys, a background image is a must. Take a look at the examples we’ve used above. The background is a muted image of a mountain, an image that represents The North Face and its brand.

You’ll want to select an image that represents your brand to use as a background image as well. Choose something that’s synonymous with your brand and resonates with customers.

Response images

We mentioned the use of images as a response option for a survey question, but we thought we’d provide a little more direction. Response images are a great way to liven up your survey and engage respondents.

It might take a few minutes to dig up photos for your survey, but it’s worth your time. If you list employees by name, social media channels, activities, specific products or locations – use an image to represent them rather than rely solely on text.Ninety percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual, so it’s safe to say that visuals help respondents move through your survey.

Where to get survey images

Want to visually stimulate customers taking your survey, but aren’t sure where to get stunning images? You have a couple of choices. If you need shots of your product, consider calling in a professional photographer for a photo shoot.

It will cost you a few bucks, but you’ll use the photos over and over again.If you need stock images, you can turn to paid sites like iStock, or you can use free sites like picjumbo or Pixabay (or you can check out our blog post on great resources for free survey images).

A nice survey thank you page

After a respondent submits the survey, a thank you message should pop up. If you forget to add this message, you must have brain freeze, which is the body part in Operation that this message represents.

The thank you screen should be short and sweet, and express your appreciation. You’ll invite a lot of people to take your survey, but not everyone will take the time. For those who do, it’s important to say thanks. It’s not just a nice gesture, it builds trust with your customers too, so don’t skip the thank you sentiment.

You can add ways for customers to engage with your brand like social media icons or links to the company website.

Here’s the thank you message from The North Face survey. The brand says thank you, reminds respondents about an incentive for taking the survey (in this case a drawing) and the brand showcases this video on the page too. Have a look:


And there you have it – the anatomy of a successful survey using the anatomy found in the 1965 board game, Operation. (Bet you’ll never look at the game the same again.)

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