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Survey Research Design, A Simple Introduction

Learn how to conduct research using online surveys

Published: 16th March 2024
Abstract representation of online survey research methods

What is Survey Research Design?

Survey research refers to a particular type of research design where the primary method of data collection is by survey. In this study design, surveys are used as a tool by researchers to gain a greater understanding about individual or group perspectives relative to a particular concept or topic of interest. A survey or online form typically consists of a set of structured questions where each question is designed to obtain a specific piece of information.

Survey research can be undertaken for a variety of reasons, but a common theme with surveys is that they are an easily accessible way for respondents to share or demonstrate their knowledge or perspectives about a particular topic. This kind of approach in turn can allow for researchers to gain a better understanding about different populations or groups of people, help identify any problems or concerns respondents have, and/or lead to the identification or development of solutions based on identified issues. Surveys are also a good way to gauge general trends or perspectives about a topic within a particular population before conducting more in-depth research.

Survey Research Methods

Survey research designs can be broadly classified as being either quantitative or qualitative. A quantitative survey design is typically administered during large-scale research and primarily relies on using closed questions to obtain information that c an be analysed relatively quickly, such as multiple-choice or dichotomous response answers. The data obtained in a quantitative survey is numerical in nature and is usually analysed using statistics. Quantitative designs and data allow for researchers to obtain a general snapshot of trends in your population of interest.

In contrast, a qualitative survey design is typically administered during smaller-scale research. Qualitative surveys tend to rely on open-ended questions in an interview format to provide participants with the opportunity to explain or elaborate on answers or concepts which are more difficult to quantify, such as attitudes or thoughts.Data collected in qualitative contexts is analysed and reported in the language of the respondents, such as in quote format. Qualitative designs and data allow for more in-depth analyses of motivations underlying responses.

Under the quantitative and qualitative umbrellas, several designs and methods can be applied to survey research. However, an important factor that needs to be considered when choosing the design and associated method for your survey is time.

You will firstly need to consider over what time frame you wish to conduct your survey. A longitudinal survey study involves examining survey responses over a certain timeframe to investigate whether there is any change in your variables of interest. In such a design, your survey needs to be administered at least twice – once at the start and at the end of the timeframe. You may also opt to administer it in the middle of the timeframe as well. In contrast, a cross-sectional survey study involves assessing survey responses at a specific point in time to ascertain what is relevant/topical at that point. In a cross-sectional survey study, the survey is administered only once.

Within longitudinal and cross-sectional designs, several methods of survey administration can be used. However, time is important here as well, because some methods are easier and faster to administer than others; particularly when also combined with longitudinal or cross-sectional designs. Electronic methods, such as online questionnaires, are becoming increasingly popular methods of survey administration because they are easily accessible by a larger number of people, and are generally quicker to administer because the participant completes it on their own. Phone or face-to-face interviews can also be quick to administer depending on how many questions you have, however these have a tendency to take longer because they involve a second person (the researcher), and also take more time to analyse because you will need to transcribe all answers before analysis.

Aspect Quantitative Survey Design Qualitative Survey Design
Scale of Research Large-scale research Smaller-scale research
Type of Questions Closed questions (e.g., multiple-choice, dichotomous response) Open-ended questions in an interview format
Nature of Data Numerical data analysed using statistics Data analysed and reported in respondents' language (e.g., quotes)
Purpose To obtain a general snapshot of trends in a population To conduct in-depth analyses of motivations underlying responses
Time Frame Consideration Time frame is crucial for design choice Time frame is crucial for design choice
Study Designs Longitudinal Survey Study: Administered at least twice to examine changes over time.
Cross-sectional Survey Study: Administered once to assess responses at a specific point in time.
Longitudinal Survey Study: Administered at least twice to examine changes over time.
Cross-sectional Survey Study: Administered once to assess responses at a specific point in time.
Methods of Survey Administration Electronic methods (e.g., online questionnaires) preferred for their accessibility and speed.
Phone or face-to-face interviews can be quicker but may require more time for analysis due to the need for transcription.
Similar considerations for methods of administration, with a note that qualitative methods may involve more detailed interviews that require significant analysis.

How to design a survey

The development and administration of a survey needs to be done systematically to make sure that you obtain the information that you are interested in. The procedure for designing and administering of a survey study generally includes:

  1. Decide what the aim of your survey is: You firstly need to decide what the purpose, or aim, of your survey is. Having a clear idea about your survey’s purpose will help you construct your survey and help obtain the information that you need and are interested in. One way to help decide the aim of your survey is to look at what other surveys have, or have not, done before. You can then use this information to identify something new that you would like you address in your study, and make a prediction about what you expect the outcomes of the survey will be.
  2. Decide who your target population is: Based on your survey aim, you will next need to determine who will be completing your survey as well as consider how many participants from your target population will need to complete it. Knowing who your target population is and having a sufficient sample size, will ensure that you have enough accurate and relevant data to answer your survey aim.
  3. Decide on your method: You will then need to choose the right survey design, timeframe and method that will allow you to answer your aim and research question most effectively. The survey design will be dependent on how and when the variables of interest need to be measured. You may consider quantitative or qualitative methods, and within this a longitudinal or cross-sectional design.
  4. Develop your survey questions: You then will need to write your survey questions. Each question you include needs to have a purpose and target one facet of what you are interested in. It is important when writing survey questions to avoid being repetitive because participants may become disengaged. It is a good idea to include a mix of closed and open-ended questions to understand focused responses and the motivations underlying those responses respectively.
  5. Administer your survey: Once you have developed your survey, you can then send it to individuals in your target population for them to complete. Advertising by social media is a popular way to spread the word about your survey and encourage participants to complete it (if online) or contact you as the researcher (if interviews).
  6. Collate and analyse the data: Once you have reached the target number of responses, you can collate and analyse your obtained responses. The analyses that you use will depend on the type of data that you have. If you have quantitative data this is typically analysed using statistics, whereas qualitative data is typically analysed by themes.
  7. Draw conclusions: Using the results you obtain from your analyses, you can then interpret the data and draw your conclusions about whether the aim of your survey was addressed. You may use these conclusions to form the basis of new research.

Helpful Survey Tips:

When conducting survey research, it’s a good idea to keep your surveys short and sharp, unless you have a specific reason to make them longer. While longer surveys will provide you with more information to analyse, sometimes when surveys are too long it increases the chances of your participants losing interest and either opting out of the survey or answering with anything to finish it earlier, which in turn will affect the validity or accuracy of your findings. It is also useful to keep the aim of the survey in mind during all steps of the study design and data collection process. Surveys are often completed by many people, so it’s easy to feel like you are getting a bit ‘lost’ in the process. Keeping the aim in mind is a useful way to keep your survey focussed, which in turn will help your results come out focussed as well.

What are examples of Survey Design Types?

Survey design is a critical component of research, offering a lens to gather diverse information across fields. Below are examples of survey design types:

  1. Cross-Sectional Surveys: Conducted at a single point to analyze current trends or opinions within a specific population.
  2. Longitudinal Surveys: Follow the same subjects over time to observe changes, making them perfect for studying trends and outcomes.
  3. Descriptive Surveys: Aim to describe the characteristics of a population or phenomenon, focusing on attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors.
  4. Analytical Surveys: Seek to understand patterns or trends in the data, employing complex statistical methods.
  5. Exploratory Surveys: Used for new topics to gather preliminary information that helps define problems and suggest hypotheses.
  6. Explanatory Surveys: Designed to explain phenomena, often building on previous research to understand the causes of events or behaviors.

For further reading and examples of survey research studies:

Understanding these survey design types enhances the quality and reliability of research findings, providing a foundation for insightful conclusions.

Is a Survey Qualitative or Quantitative?

Surveys can be both qualitative and quantitative, depending on the nature of the questions asked and the goals of the research:

  • Quantitative Surveys: These surveys include structured questions with predetermined responses, such as multiple-choice or rating scales, aimed at gathering measurable data. They're excellent for assessing trends, frequencies, or patterns within large populations.
  • Qualitative Surveys: These involve open-ended questions that allow respondents to answer in their own words, providing deeper insights into their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Qualitative surveys are invaluable for exploring complex issues or new areas of interest.

For a more comprehensive understanding of survey methodologies and their applications:

  • Qualitative Research Guidelines Project: Visit QRGP
  • Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports: Visit JQAS

Choosing between qualitative and quantitative survey research depends on the specific objectives of the study and the type of information required. By combining both approaches, researchers can often gain the most comprehensive insights.

Are Surveys Exploratory or Descriptive Research?

Surveys can be utilized for both exploratory and descriptive research, depending on the objectives of the study:

  • Exploratory Surveys: Aimed at investigating unexplored areas, generating hypotheses, and identifying new variables. These surveys ask open-ended questions to gather insights and understand the nuances of a subject matter.
  • Descriptive Surveys: Used to describe characteristics of a population or phenomenon, these surveys employ structured questions to collect quantifiable data for analysis. They are excellent for mapping out the who, what, where, when, and how of a topic.

For further reading and resources on exploratory and descriptive research:

The choice between exploratory and descriptive surveys depends largely on the research questions posed and the stage of the research process. While exploratory surveys are great for gaining initial understanding, descriptive surveys are best suited for detailed analysis based on defined variables.

Does a Survey Count as Research?

Absolutely, surveys are a fundamental tool in research methodologies across various disciplines. They are used to gather data, opinions, and insights from a targeted group of individuals and serve several research purposes:

  • Quantitative Research: Surveys provide numerical data which can be analyzed statistically to identify patterns, trends, or correlations among variables.
  • Qualitative Research: Open-ended survey questions allow for the collection of detailed responses, offering depth and context to explore the reasons behind certain behaviors or opinions.
  • Exploratory and Descriptive Research: Surveys can help explore new areas of study or describe the characteristics of a population or phenomenon in detail.

For those interested in learning more about the role of surveys in research:

In sum, surveys are not only counted as research but are also crucial in acquiring reliable and valid data that support empirical findings and theoretical arguments.

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