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Online survey software

Surveys are not consultations. But a survey can be part of a consultation process.

The first question is, should we do surveys online?

  1. Some people don't have computer access or the skills to use them (e.g. senior managers, vice chancellors)
  2. Christina Nilsson and Cecilia Bäckström, in their master thesis, Mixed Mode - Handling method-differences between paper and web questionnaires, found that respondents were significantly less willing to pick extreme answers in an online survey than when filling out a paper questionnaire. So maybe we should use 7-point scales online for a 5-point scale on paper.

Complete online research services

A number of companies will take a questionnaire in any form, put it online, run the survey, and code up the results for you. I know of a couple.

  1. SPSS run a service in which they will run your questionnaire on their mrProject software.
  2. Milward Brown Ulster have their own online research and web usability facility in Belfast.

Online survey software

There are different approaches to running online surveys. In historical order, they are:

  1. Custom forms and scripts
    1. Design a web form using an HTML editor such as Dreamweaver.
    2. Put it on a web server.
    3. Write a small program in a scripting language (Perl, PHP, Python, Java, etc.) to collect the submitted answers and save them in a file or database.
    • OK for one-offs, an easy exercise for new programmers, but time-consuming if you plan to do a lot of online surveys.
  2. Simple polls and quizzes
    • Quite a lot of content management systems support simple one-question polls, and simple quizzes (like the ones you get in newspapers).
    • A search of open source/free software on [1] or [2] will find scores of applications. Add the commercial CMSs mentioned on [3] and there are a few hundred products.
    • But the polls are voodoo polls: you can often vote multiple times, and see the result each time you vote.
    • The quizzes don't have many question types, so they are fine for simple administrative questionnaires, but not for subtle surveys.
    • The questionnaire design and reporting user interfaces are rudimentary.
  3. Simple survey software
    1. Use a simple online question editor to produce a set of questions.
    2. Activate the survey, so that people who go to the site can complete it.
    3. Collect the results in a database over a fixed time.
    4. When complete, export the data to a simple comma-separated value file (for import into Excel, SPSS etc. for analysis).
    • An good example is the VT survey tool. Virginia Tech uses this software to implement [4] which serves over 3000 Virginia Tech students, faculty and staff.
    • The emphasis is on simplicity, so that users can quickly design survey questions, without too much training. If your needs are simple, this is the best way to go.
    • However, this limits the complexity of question types (VT survey only has 4).
    • Nor can such software control the question flow (e.g. some questions only appear if you give a particular answer to an earlier question).
  4. Online inputs to survey analysis software
    • Designed from the analysis end, rather than starting with questionnaire design.
    • Typically have direct output to formats used by statistical software (e.g. SPSS data files).
    • Support a wide range of complicated question types, at the expense of extra difficulties in designing the questions.
    • Some commercial (e.g. SPSS), some open source (e.g. mod_survey).
    • Good where you have expertise in statistical analysis and the time to learn the software (e.g. the XML form design syntax for mod_survey), not so good for less frequent or expert users.
  5. Survey server software
    1. Use an online survey and question designer to develop a questionnaire, with a good range of questions, and good control on the sequences in which questions appear. The survey is stored in a database.
      • Some software can also generate a paper version.
    2. Invite people by e-mail to go to the site to complete the survey.
      • Some software sends out the e-mails, and can generate individual tokens so that each respondent can only reply once.
    3. When someone goes to the survey URL, the server generates multiple pages of questions, and collects all the responses in a database.
      • Some software supports data entry from paper questionnaires.
    4. After collecting some results, can generate simple reports for instant analysis (often with graphs).
    5. At the end, can export the data in a number of data interchange formats (CSV, Excel or similar), for import to more sophisticated analysis software.
    • Examples include the well-known phpESP, and the more recent PHP Surveyor.
    • The best ones are powerful tools, able to handle quite subtle surveys.
    • But it takes a little time to understand their user interfaces, as each has a different way of representing questionnaire structures. It is worth trying out the online product demonstrations.
    • The difference between commercial products and the open source ones is mainly that the commercial ones have user interfaces that are easier to learn, but their software is harder to install and run on simple web servers. It is always worth evaluating both.

Example of survey software

To complement the demonstration sites mentioned above, I've installed PHP Surveyor on this server.