Online-based survey software… 5 pointers to look out for

Surveys are a pretty common activity in international development programs. It is becoming increasingly easy to undertake online-based surveys (as opposed to paper-based), and there are definitely some benefits to be recognised.

It used to be that undertaking online-based surveys was a major production, requiring co-opting a web nerd in IT with party favours or hiring an external company for a huge amount of money. While the latter option still exists for those with the cash, the former is now much easier thanks to a lot of self-service online options. Hallelujah.

Obviously, you can only use an online-based survey when/where appropriate. It’s important to know what percentage of your target population has access to the internet and you might need to use the online survey in combination with a paper-based survey. Another alternative is that facilitators in the field can complete the online-based survey on mobile devices (tablets, mobiles, etc.) as they interview participants face-to-face.

What are your online options?

Beyond creating your own custom made survey on your website (which is totally possible… just speak to whoever manages your website), there are really three main types of providers for do-it-yourself online surveys.

Online Survey Providers

The first option that you can go for is a provider that specialises in online surveys such as SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, FluidSurveys, SurveyMoz and SoGoSurvey. The features that they provide are tailored to surveys, such as the ability to randomise question order and use question piping (I talk about this later on).

Web Form Providers

Another group of providers are the online form builders, which people use for things like contact forms on websites. While not exclusively designed for surveys, they do have features you might like such as extensive branding and design options. There are lots of online form builders as a quick internet search will show you. I’ve used Wufoo for years and like it. Other options include FormStack, FormSite, etc. Seriously, just search online if you’re looking for one, there are lots.

Online File Storage Providers

Lastly, mega-companies like Google and Microsoft have also started providing free online forms services as part of their online file storage offerings. Google provides Google Forms (which is part of Google Drive), a pretty good service if you have fairly basic requirements. Microsoft also has a relatively new (and therefore not that feature rich) online service Excel Surveys with SkyDrive.

Of course, no service does everything well and I’ve found the half-dozen providers that I’ve used at one stage or another force me to compromise in some way. Still, I’m happy that there are lots of services readily available for web forms and online surveys, and depending on your needs one of these providers might be good for you.

Onto the things to look out, specifically for online surveys in international development…

#1. Check that the language you need is supported

Not all languages and character sets are treated equally on the internet and you will need to see if the language you want to do your survey in is supported. Make sure to check these tips for localising your survey first.

Keep in mind that you might want to translate buttons as well (e.g. a next/previous button or even the button to submit the survey), and not all services allow you to do this. It is also important to pretest to see if this is necessary first. When we did an online survey in Cambodia we found that most people were used to seeing the basic buttons in English and when we translated them to the local language, people found it confusing.

Also tricky is if the language you require is right-to-left (e.g. Arabic). SurveyMonkey doesn’t (currently) support right-to-left languages, however SurveyGizmo does and the online form providers like Wufoo and FormSite allow you to customise the styling of the survey (although take note that this can get a bit technical and you will probably need a web person to help).

#2. But does it do what you want it to do? (functionality)

One of the great advantages of online-based surveys is that they can do so much more than their paper-based counterparts. Perhaps the best examples are when it comes to logic, branching, and question piping.

Logic and Branching

Logic and branching refer to when the answer to one question will change what other questions are asked. For example, on a paper-based survey you might have a question on the highest level of schooling the participant has. If they have not completed university-level education, then you may want them to skip a question. Online-based surveys can make this very easy to do, as the answer to the education question can show or hide other questions or sections in the online-based survey. Definitely an advantage over paper-based surveys! Pretty much all survey and online form providers offer a variety of logic and branching features (make sure to double check), and Google Forms offers a simplified version.

Question Piping

SurkeyGizmo, SurveyMonkey, SurveyMoz, FluidSurveys, SoGoSurvey and other survey providers also offer question piping… where answers from an earlier question can be inserted into later questions. For example, say that your survey asked a multiple-choice question on the types of health services the respondent had used in the previous month. Question piping can push the answers into a rating scale so that only the options the respondent selected are present. Take that, paper!

Offline Survey Collection

Another point to consider is how many providers allow you to easily collect surveys offline, for example with a mobile device like a smart phone or tablet. Of course, you can always collect responses offline with a paper-based survey and just join the results before you begin your analysis, or enter the paper-based surveys manually into the online system. For some providers, that is the easiest option (e.g. SurveyMonkey). SurveyGizmo offers some great support for offline surveys with iPad/iPhone and Android apps that can collect survey responses without an internet connection and sync the results when you become connected to the internet (e.g. through a Wi-Fi connection). Wufoo also offers similar offline support through integration with Device Magic. Device Magic itself is not great for surveys (their question types and features are more geared around forms / processes for running an organisation) but they do have mobile apps and offline data collection that syncs with Wufoo is super handy.

#3. Be aware of your budget (cost)

I’m betting your budget is probably limited or non-existent. The advantage of online form providers is that their services can be used for quite a lot of different online requirements, as opposed to the survey providers, which can only really be used for surveys.

A big advantage of a lot of the providers is that they offer month-by-month contracts/payments. Going month-by-month means you’re not locked into an annual contract/cost, which is particularly handy if you only need the service for a short period of time. Some services (e.g. Wufoo and FormStack) allow the option to downgrade an account to the ‘freemium’ level and then upgrade again in the future.

If you’re going to be doing surveys and expect a high volume of responses, then make sure to check how many responses are included in the plan you choose and what the cost is for any overage. This can be $0.05 to $0.15 per submission in some cases.

Non-profit or charity discounts

Some online survey and online form providers offer discounts to non-profits, educational institutions and/or charities. You need to check what the documentation requirements are, as the provider might only recognise US-registered organisations and need a copy of a 501(c)3 determination letter issued by the IRS (whatever that is). Worth noting… SurveyMoz and SoGoSurvey both provide ‘premium’ features for free to non-profits if you do a web link exchange with them (link to their website from your website).

Trial periods and ‘Freemium’

Personally, I would not use an online service that does not offer a free trial period where I can test all the features I want to use. This is particularly handy when you’re trying to evaluate services that offer similar features for comparable costs. Thankfully, all the services mentioned in this article include a free trial period (and many other services not mentioned also have a trial period). Some services (e.g. SurveyMonkey, Wufoo and FormSite) even have a ‘freemium’ option where you can get a very basic account with cut-down functionality for an unlimited period of time. To be honest though, I’d only use the freemium account for further testing as they are so limited in terms of the number of questions you can ask and the number of responses they accept that I can’t see them ever being used for a ‘real’ survey, beyond something pretty superficial.

The Google and Microsoft options are free (at the moment), although both services have business versions of the online storage / online applications that attract monthly or annual fees.

#4. How you going to pay for that? (payment methods)

As with most online services, it is possible to pay for all of the providers with credit card, which can sometimes make payment impossible for local NGOs and implementing agencies in developing countries. Some of the services listed also allow payment by purchase order / invoice, although only under specific conditions (e.g. it must be for the more expensive annual plan). Bank transfers are also possible with SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo and others.

#5. Make it pretty (design and branding)

Chances are you’re going to want to do at least a little bit of branding on your survey. Maybe just a logo, or using your organisation’s fonts and colours, or even going so far as to want to embed the survey on a page of your organisation’s website. Most services allow for logos to be inserted, although this is normally part of a more expensive level of service, and most of the services listed in this article allow you to embed the survey on another website.

Surveys are hard. This should help.

one does not simply 'do' a survey There is a downside to all these easy-to-use and relatively cheap survey providers, namely that they don’t stop anyone from doing badly designed surveys. It is now very easy to put an online-based survey into ‘the field’, and there are extra things you should do to make the results as accurate as possible. tools4dev has a few resources to help… check out our guide to writing awesome survey questions, how to pretest and pilot a survey and also how to design survey forms for quick data entry.

If you have any questions on surveys… drop us a line, we’re happy to help 🙂

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About Tim Brack

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A lover of all things internets, Tim is into websites, online marketing systems and software (he provides some of the technology and software reviews for tools4dev). In his day job, Tim advises small businesses and organisations on marketing communications, operations, systems and strategy.
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