Big Questions Prevent Big Problems – Effective Survey Design

Surveys are often the first or only evaluation tool used by nonprofits, but poor survey design can produce untrustworthy or irrelevant results. The first step in creating a new survey, or reviewing an old one, is to take a step back and ask four big questions. These questions can prevent big problems down the line.

  1. What do I need to know?
  2. Who knows it?
  3. How will I use the results?
  4. What is the best method?

What do I need to know?

Identify your need in clear language. This is the big picture purpose of your survey. Don’t lose sight of it!

A survey without a clear purpose either doesn’t answer any of your questions or tries to answer way too many, which is the same thing. Your survey may lack purpose if:

  • You don’t know why you are doing the survey.
  • You have a hard time figuring out what to ask about on the survey.
  • You feel like you have way too many things to ask about.

Who knows it?

Given your need, who should you ask for information? They are your audience.

Sometimes we ask the wrong people. You may have the wrong audience if:

  • Many questions are skipped.
  • You have a hard time getting people to start or finish the survey.

Other times, we ask questions that no one can answer! If you can’t answer the question, you may be asking a question to which no one knows the answer.

How will I use the results?

Identify the actions you are going to take with the results. Check to make sure the questions in your survey will get the information you need to take those actions.

If you don’t consider how you are going to use the results of your survey, you may get results that you can’t use! You may need to think about use if:

  • You can’t identify who is going to use the results.
  • You can’t say how the results from previous surveys have been used.

What is the best method?

Think about your purpose, audience, and usage. Is a survey the best way to get information that fits your need? What type of survey would work best? Would another method work better? Is there existing information that could help you without the need to ask people questions.

If you ask questions that aren’t appropriate for a survey, you get bad results and survey takers experience frustration. The same goes if a survey is not appropriate for your audience. You may need to consider another method if:

  • Your questions are mostly open-ended.
  • Your questions are multi-faceted or complex.
  • Your audience would struggle with accessing, understanding, or completing a survey.


Ready to do this with your own survey? Download the worksheet, gather a few of your coworkers, and discuss these questions. When you are finished, you are ready to begin writing your survey. Remember, every survey question you ask should:

  1. Give you information towards your purpose.
  2. Be appropriate for your audience.
  3. Match how you are going to use the survey.
  4. Be appropriate for the survey method.

Download Worksheet: Big Questions Prevent Big Problems

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