Survey Design: Formatting

When it comes to formatting your survey, there is ultimately no right or wrong answer. However, a survey that is disorganized can affect the respondent’s understanding of certain items and consequently, their responses. It is important that your survey is thoughtfully constructed to elicit responses that are reliable and valid. Below is a list of visual and organizational components to consider when formatting your survey.

Visual components

  • Blank Space. Blank space allows respondents to focus on one item at a time and reduces fatigue throughout the survey.
  • Answer Design. Answer spaces should be indented and inserted underneath the item as opposed to the end of it so respondents do not have to move their eyes across the whole page or screen.
  • Images. Use images sparingly as they can draw attention and distract the respondent. If they must be used, keep them consistent in size and shape.
  • Color and Contrast. Create a focal point by including a lightly shaded background for the item and a white space for the answer.
  • Orientation. Paper surveys should be printed in portrait orientation rather than landscape as this is the most conventional and familiar format.

View an example of these visual components

Organizational components

  • Item Order. Interesting items should be presented at the beginning of the survey and all items should be easy to complete. Objectionable items should be put at the end of the survey to reduce the threat of low response rates.
  • Similar Questions. Similar types of items or questions should be presented in the same question format.
  • Multiple Items on Screen. Including multiple items on-screen sometimes results in faster completion times and less missing data. Therefore, you should organize similar items on the same screen.
  • Alignment. Vertically align items if there are multiple items on the screen
  • Paging vs. Scrolling. Some research has found few differences between paging and scrolling surveys. However, scrolling surveys tend to have a higher rate of non-substantive responses.
  • Matrix vs. Expanded Format. Matrices should be used sparingly or at least kept simple. The task of matching columns to rows is complex and respondents are more likely to miss items when they are arranged this way.
  • Radio Button vs. Text Box. Using text boxes instead of radio buttons often results in missing data. However, if the respondent chooses to fill out the text box, it often results in higher quality data.
  • Progress Indicator. Is generally recommended unless the survey is long and including one would exacerbate the perceived length of the survey.