Step 4: Format the survey

The format of your survey can have a great impact on your response rate. Poorly organized surveys run the risk of respondents losing interest, becoming confused, or refusing to participate. Here are some tips for formatting an effective survey:

Begin with an introduction. Provide the respondent with a brief introduction to the survey. This is your opportunity to convince respondents that participating in your survey is worth their time and effort. To do this, include the following in the introduction:

  • Title. This seems obvious, but can be easily forgotten when developing the survey.
  • Topic. Inform the respondent of the topic of the survey, unless this is contrary to the objectives of your study. This can be as short as a sentence. You may also want to provide a short explanation as to how their participation will help.
  • Voluntary & Confidentiality. Ensure respondents that their participation is completely voluntary and their responses will remain confidential. If your survey is also anonymous, inform respondents. This will address many of their privacy related concerns.
  • Sponsor & Contact. Inform respondents of who is conducting the survey and how to contact you with questions or concerns.

Logically order & group the questions. Group questions by topic and place these groupings in a logical order. Your initial questions are critical to ensuring continued participation. Questions that are intriguing, easy to answer, and impersonal are best. Be sure that the grouping and order of the following questions have a natural flow to them. Reserve the last questions in your survey for demographic and sensitive topics. Placing these at the end and providing an alternative response option, for example “decline to state,” reduces the chance of respondents refusing to participate in the entire survey.

Keep it short. Shorter surveys are more likely to be completed by respondents as they require less of a time commitment. The ideal survey is short while still capturing all of the information necessary to meet its objectives. After drafting your survey, review it for unnecessary words or questions that duplicate information or measure topics that are not relevant to your objectives. Once you have removed the unnecessary elements, consider the following:

  • Use multiple pages. Listing all questions of an online survey on one page gives the appearance of an excessively long survey, increasing the chances that the respondent will abandon it all together.
  • Use contingency questions. Contingency questions prompt the respondent with a preliminary question to determine if subsequent questions will apply. Respondents will not have to weed through questions that do not apply to them, reducing the amount of time they must devote to the survey. For instance, when surveying alumni on employment experience, first ask a contingency question similar to the following, 
      What is your current employment status?
    __ Employed full-time
    __ Employed part-time 
    __ Not employed, seeking employment
    __ Not employed, not seeking employment
    Asking a contingency question like this one allows you to design specific follow-up questions for particular response options that are selected. In this case, you may want to ask additional employment questions for those respondents that are employed full-time or part-time. Those respondents that are not currently employed will be able to skip this series of questions as the initial contingency question determined that they will not apply.
  • Use a progress bar. Including a progress bar to indicate the number or percentage of questions remaining will give the respondent a sense of the length of the survey and the amount of time remaining after each page.

Close with a thank you. Always remember to thank respondents for their participation at the end of the survey. You may also wish to provide them with your website and remind them of your contact information for their questions and concerns.


 Suskie, L. A. (1996.) Questionnaire survey research: What works. (2nd ed.). Tallahassee, FL: The Association for Institutional Research.

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