What Can I Learn From a Survey?
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
Surveys are great for collecting certain types of information that can help with decision-making. As you sit down to think through your data needs, consider some of the most common types of information that government agencies use surveys to collect:
Survey questions can help you understand your community’s past or current behaviors, and gain insight into future actions.
For example, if you wanted to get a sense of current transit use in your community you might ask: “Last year, how often did you ride the bus?” If your agency wants to anticipate future actions, you might ask: “What would make you more likely to ride public transportation?” and prompt respondents to select one option from a predefined list.
Collecting behavior information provides context for other responses participants may provide and can help you refine subsequent content so that you’re asking relevant questions. People who don’t use public transportation, for example, likely won’t answer more questions about bus stops or transit routes.
Keep in mind that while past behavior relies on memory to recall past actions, predictive behaviors are purely hypothetical. Someone’s best guess at what they might do doesn’t always translate into what actually happens.
Perceptions and Attitudes
Agencies often use surveys to collect subjective information about people’s perceptions or attitudes toward a topic or issue. Perceptions are how people make sense of something or what they believe. Attitudes are how people feel about something (positive or negative).
Questions to gauge public perception might look like this: “On average, how many days per week should the City hold public meetings?” or “Do you think allowing accessory dwelling units within city limits will help address housing availability issues?” The answers will vary depending on people’s beliefs about public meetings or what they think is the best solution to improve housing availability.
Questions to gauge public attitude might look like this: “In general, how safe or unsafe do you feel while waiting for the bus at the Main Street stop?” The answers will show a range of opinions that reflect how people feel about their safety.
Remember that the sentiments shared by survey respondents may not reflect those of the community as a whole - they’re just a starting point for understanding community perceptions and attitudes.
“Which three of the following five features would you like to see in a new park?”
This is a classic example of a preference-focused question. It includes a predefined list of options and survey respondents are tasked with selecting the top choice or choices.
Agencies often use preference questions when trying to refine public art or parks projects. Respondents are asked to pick their favorite from a set of potential designs or options. Similarly, transit organizations may present questions that ask respondents to select preferred locations for a new bus stop or preferred streets for new bike lanes.
Priority-based questions assess preferences but in a much more specific way. In a preference-based question, like the example above, participants select their top choices from a set of predefined options. From that, agencies can identify top preferences, but can’t determine which choice was most important.
If you want to determine relative importance, you need a priority question. Let’s say someone has selected the top five features they’d like to see at a new park, but now you want to know how the items on this list relate to one another from the participant’s perspective.
To determine importance, you’ll want to structure the question so participants rank the items based on some criterion. It could involve ranking five features of the park, from most important to least important. It could be ranking items according to participants’ potential use or value. The data you collect will still show preference, BUT it will also show relative importance.
This data is useful if, for example, budget issues force you to fund only three of the top five park features. Rather than releasing another survey asking participants to narrow down five choices to three, your ranking question has already provided you with the information you need to identify top priorities.
In short: Preference questions are good if you only need to draw conclusions about the top choice; priority questions are best if you want to see how the potential options relate to one another.
Demographic questions ask participants to provide information about their age, gender, level of education, ethnicity, income, or other characteristics.
Collecting demographic information about who has responded to your survey is critical for tracking the representativeness of your sample. Let’s say that you are conducting a survey in a college town where 33% of the population is between the ages of 18 and 24. For a representative sample, you would also want that percentage of your survey respondents to be within that age range. If your survey doesn’t collect this information, you will not be able to measure the degree to which your respondents reflect the characteristics of the community you are engaging.
Understanding community demographics before you do your survey can also help you proactively ensure appropriate representation - for example, anticipating low participation from college-age students and making campus outreach a part of your survey marketing plan. Tracking demographics during the engagement process allows you to adapt your outreach strategy in an attempt to improve representativeness, if necessary.
Demographics can also help you make sense of nuances in your data because results often vary across groups. For example, perceptions of increased multi-family development in a neighborhood will likely depend on factors like age and income. Without demographic data, we miss the opportunity to explore our survey results more fully and get a better understanding of community feedback.
Ultimately, it’s important to identify what information you want to get from your participants before you write your survey. Making a list of that information will help you determine what type of questions you should use and how to phrase the questions to collect the most useful data.