Choosing An Online Survey Platform
What’s the BEST online survey platform?
It depends on the factors that are most important to you.
I have years of experience using these platforms from all sides. I’ve taken surveys as a resident, helped set up surveys as a community engagement specialist for a municipal government agency, worked for an online engagement tech company,* and now I develop and deploy surveys for my clients as a community engagement data consultant.
At the request of my clients, I’ve created a list of questions that will be useful as you shop for online survey platforms and select the one that best fits your engagement needs.
Setting up a survey online should be a relatively straightforward process that requires little to no training. Of course, most companies will tell you their product is intuitive and easy to use. But is it really? Ask for a sample project to test it out and consider the following:
How easy or difficult is it to create survey questions?
Are the question settings easy to identify and change (e.g., Can you easily make a question required or not)?
Is the survey easy to format and questions easy to rearrange?
Are there pain points as you’re setting up the survey?
How long does it take to create a survey?
Can you set up the survey without extensive digging in the support library?
How easy or difficult is it to deploy a survey?
How easy or difficult is it to close a survey to responses?
It’s not enough for admins to find the platform easy to navigate; it is also important that the people taking the survey can offer their input with ease. Any pain points or potential causes for confusion among respondents can damage your response rates and leave people frustrated. This is true for the survey questions you ask and how the survey platform asks individuals to respond:
How easy or difficult is it for respondents to answer a question? Ask this for each survey question type offered on the platform.
Does the platform meet accessibility requirements? Can users participate if they use screen-reading or other assistive technology?
Can the survey be taken online without difficulty via multiple devices, e.g., computer, tablet, or mobile?
Are there any aspects of the platform that may confuse respondents (e.g., how to submit responses, how to upload files such as photos or documents, or how to use map features, etc.)?
Public surveys, like most engagement efforts, involve a team. Surveys often (or ideally) go through multiple levels of review, translation, and testing. The team can include agency staff as well as external consultants. The ability to collaborate with all members of the team via the platform can streamline communication and reduce the chances for errors.
What team collaboration options does the platform offer for administering a survey?
Can multiple team members be added to the platform, or are there any additional fees required?
Does every team member need to have the same level of access or privileges on the platform to make survey revisions or suggestions?
How easy or difficult is it to share the survey for review without releasing it publicly?
Does the platform track history about who, when, and how the survey has been changed over time? If so, how can you access those records?
A platform may offer all the bells and whistles, but that matters very little if features or functions are unstable and frequently breaking. Because most platform providers will tell you their platform is reliable and that they have few issues with bugs, it’s advised to ask a current client user (if you haven’t used the platform before) or do an audit of your experience (if you are evaluating your current platform).
Is the platform experience consistent day to day and week to week?
Would you consider the platform glitchy? Reliable?
How many bugs (and how often) have you experienced or reported?
Has a project or deliverable that relied on the platform ever been delayed because the platform wasn’t functioning? If so, how often has this happened?
Are the features consistent?
Do features get added or removed without notice?
Are you on a first-name basis with the platform’s support team?
A survey platform is effectively worthless if you can’t easily access, understand, or report the data collected from respondents. When evaluating platforms, consider:
Are the responses for each question type reported in a way that makes sense to you?
How are the results of the surveys reported (e.g., .CSV or Excel file? Summary report? Dashboard? etc.)
Do you have the option to share the survey results (or not) with the public through the platform?
If you can share the results publicly through the platform, are the outputs easy for the public to understand?
Contact Collection and Management
Providing opportunities for respondents to volunteer their contact information when they fill out a survey is generally a good idea (although there are exceptions). Whether you’ll use this information to close the feedback loop or inform respondents about future engagement opportunities, you will want to have easy access to the data.
Does the platform allow you to easily collect contact information from respondents?
How does it store this information?
Can you easily access contacts?
Can you easily download this information?
Data analysis through the survey platform will be more important to some team members than others. For teams that have a data analyst on staff, platform-based analytic tools can be icing on the cake. For teams without a data analyst or without the time needed to fully analyze data, being able to analyze survey data through the platform may be a necessity. Consider the specific analytic needs of your team and then ask:
Can you easily monitor survey results as they come in?
Can you tag, sort, and/or summarize comments on the platform?
Can you compare responses across different questions (e.g. run crosstabs)?
Can you compare responses across respondents to explore differences across groups?
If you have multiple surveys on the platform, can these data “talk” to one another?
Can you view overall statistics for all of your engagement efforts using the platform (not just individual surveys)?
Security and Privacy
There are always risks associated with online engagement. Conducting and responding to surveys through an online portal is no different. Given that the data you are collecting is (presumably) important to your organization and potentially open to public disclosure requests, you want to ensure its security and integrity. And given that respondents may be offering personal, sometimes sensitive information, you also want to make sure that the platform offers some privacy measures.
How does the platform store general survey data?
How is sensitive data like name, address, phone number, and email stored on the platform?
Who legally “owns” the data and who is responsible for ensuring that it is secure?
Are responses disaggregated in a way that protects respondent confidentiality (i.e., respondent information is stored separately from their individual responses)?
How does the platform deter or handle issues like ballot stuffing (i.e., someone responding to the same survey more than once) and survey spamming (i.e., bots taking your survey)?
What happens to the data if/when you terminate your contract or switch platforms?
Community engagement survey platforms are an excellent addition to your public outreach efforts. They can greatly simplify and streamline your tasks and provide your organization with valuable data in your deliberations. When you’re looking for a community engagement survey platform, you have a lot to consider. The resources you have access to and the specific needs of your team and your community will help dictate your choice of platform. Use the questions from the list above that are most relevant for your specific needs.
Do you have questions about this list or suggestions of questions to add? Are you having trouble choosing an online survey platform because you aren’t sure what to prioritize for your team? Let’s chat!
*Full disclosure: I worked as a customer success manager and tech evangelist for PublicInput.com. However, this blog is not an endorsement of any particular platform and focuses more on what you should consider when choosing the best one for your engagement needs.