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A survey is a set of questions designed to gather specific data from a research group of individuals.


A method for getting a decent sample size so we can quickly draw conclusions about user behavior or expectations.

The nuts and bolts: A survey is a set of questions designed to gather specific data from a group of individuals in human subjects research. Surveys can be performed via the phone, by mail, on the internet, or on the street corners, or at shopping malls.

A test subject taking a survey.

Even though we recommend having conversations with your users as often as possible, surveys can be a great starting point to help fill in the broad strokes of a product landscape or your target audience. Surveys are quick, lightweight, and help ensure you don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Breadth Instead of Depth

So when do we use surveys instead of customer interviews? Most simply, when we’re looking for breadth rather than depth.

User interviews are conversational, and help answer “why.” Why do people use your product? Why do they want these features? Is there a better way to solve their problems? In interviews, you should be reading between the lines and digging into what people say to find out what they really mean.

On the other hand, surveys are all about breadth: finding patterns across a wide range of users. Do your users have mobile devices? What products do they like? Which competitors have they tried? How old are they?

We usually recommend talking to your most “typical” user either through user interviewing or testing. However, if you’re still not sure who your target users are, surveys can be done in a pinch. And online surveys are quite easy to do.

One handy way to create online surveys is on our tool Helio. From there, you can use our audiences, or you can recruit participants on Twitter, Facebook, special-interest forums, mailing lists, Craigslist — you name it.

Barrel of Questions

For example, let’s say you’re interested in creating an iPad app for teachers to use in the classroom. You may want to consider running a survey to find out how many teachers have iPads, whether they have access to one in the classroom, what other electronics they own, and what websites/apps they already use.

Depending on your results, you might learn that very few teachers own an iPad, but a decent number have access to one in the classroom. Or that few have iPads, but many have Android tablets. Or that most tablet-owning teachers are in their 30s, or live in Silicon Valley. All this information is easy and quick to collect via survey, but invaluable to you, and may significantly impact how you’ll build and market your product.

When you’re designing a survey, there are a couple of factors to keep in mind. Surveys are most effective for straight-forward, quantifiable questions like:

  • What kind of phone do you have?
  • What’s your zip code?
  • Do you have a tablet (e.g. iPad, Android tablet, Kindle Fire)?
  • If so, what kind is it?

This makes conducting surveys an effective way to identify demographics in your target audience, the technical feasibility of an idea, or your potential competitors.

Keep it Simple

However, hypothetical or complicated questions don’t fare so well: results are likely to be mixed, not applicable to your product, and, worse, you run the risk of frustrating people and driving them to abandon your survey. Here are some examples of questions that are poorly suited to the survey format:

  • Why don’t you use this product?
  • As a teacher, what tools do you wish you had in the classroom?
  • Would you be interested in (our new snazzy iPad app)?

Users are notoriously bad at predicting their own future behavior, so asking these sorts of questions in surveys may lead you astray.

Let’s consider Facebook. There’s been public outcry several times over the last few years over the social media giant’s product decisions. Countless users threatened to delete their accounts over updates to the look and feel, newsfeed, or groups. But that didn’t happen. The user base has continued to grow instead.

Imagine what would happen if Facebook actually went to every user and asked, “Do you want this new feature?” If the company did that, then they’d never change anything and Facebook would quickly find itself next to Friendster in the social network graveyard.

So remember — save hypothetical questions for customer interviews. People may be just as unreliable in an interview, but you’ll have much more opportunity to get the “story” behind what people say, and guess how they actually feel.

Found the forest? Next stop, trees.

Surveys are just the first step. Once you’ve identified your users or learned who your competitors are, you’re just getting started. Now, you’ll want to take those patterns you discovered and actually interview customers who fall into those groups. Dig in, and find the motivations behind what they do.

And, finally, once you build your product or add your new features, get your product in front of people and see how they react. User test as early as possible. Not only will it be a lot of fun, but it’ll be downright eye-opening.