Online Surveys On a Shoestring: Tips and Tricks

Design research has always been about qualitative techniques. Increasingly, our clients ask us to add a “quant part” to projects, often without much or any additional budget. Luckily for us, there are plenty of tools available to conduct online surveys, from simple ones like Google Forms and SurveyMonkey to more elaborate ones like Qualtrics and Key Survey.

Whichever tool you choose, there are certain pitfalls in conducting quantitative research on a shoestring budget. Based on our own experience, we’ve compiled a set of tips and tricks to help avoid some common ones, as well as make your online survey more effective.

We’ve organized our thoughts around three survey phases: writing questions, finding respondents, and cleaning up data.

Writing questions

Writing a good questionnaire is both art and science, and we strongly encourage you to learn how to do it. Most of our tips here are relevant to all surveys, but particularly important for the low-budget ones. Having respondents who are compensated only a little, if at all, makes the need for good survey writing practices even more important.

Ask (dis)qualifying questions first

A sacred rule of surveys is to not waste people’s time. If there are terminating criteria, gather those up front and disqualify respondents as quickly as you can if they do not meet the profile. It is also more sensitive to terminate them with a message “Thank you for your time, but we already have enough respondents like you” rather than “Sorry, but you do not qualify for this survey.”

Keep it short

Little compensation means that respondents will drop out at higher rates. Only focus on what is truly important to your research questions. Ask yourself how exactly the information you collect will contribute to your research. If the answer is “not sure,” don’t ask.

For example, it’s common to ask about a level of education or income, but if comparing data across different levels of education or income is not essential to your analysis, don’t waste everyone’s time asking the questions. If your client insists on having “nice to know” answers, insist on allocating more budget to pay the respondents for extra work.

Keep it simple

Keep your target audience in mind and be a normal human being in framing your questions. Your client may insist on slipping in industry jargon and argue that “everyone knows what it is.” It is your job to make the survey speak the language of the respondents, not the client.

For example, in a survey about cameras, we changed the industry term “lifelogging” to a longer, but simpler phrase “capturing daily routines, such as commute, meals, household activities, and social interactions.”

Keep it engaging

People in real life don’t casually say, “I am somewhat satisfied” or “the idea is appealing to me.” To make your survey not only simple but also engaging, consider using more natural language for response choices.

For example, instead of using standard Likert-scale “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” responses to the statement “This idea appeals to me” in a concept testing survey, we offered a scale “No, thanks” – “Meh” – “It’s okay” – “It’s pretty cool” – “It’s amazing.” We don’t know for sure if our respondents found this approach more engaging (we certainly hope so), but our client showed a deeper emotional response to the results.

Finding respondents

Online survey tools differ in how much help they provide with recruiting respondents, but most common tools will assist in finding the sample you need, if the profile is relatively generic or simple. For true “next to nothing” surveys, we’ve used Amazon Mechanical Turk (mTurk), SurveyMonkey Audience, and our own social networks for recruiting.

Be aware of quality

Cheap recruiting may easily result in low quality data. While low-budget surveys will always be vulnerable to quality concerns, there are mechanisms to ensure that you keep your quality bar high.

First of all, know what motivates your respondents. Amazon mTurk commonly pays $1 for the so-called “Human Intelligence Task” that may include taking an entire survey. In other words, someone is earning as little as $4 an hour if they complete four 15-minute surveys. As such, some mTurk Workers may try to cheat the system and complete multiple surveys for which they may not be qualified.

SurveyMonkey, on the other hand, claims that their Audience service delivers better quality, since the respondents are not motivated by money. Instead of compensating respondents, SurveyMonkey makes a small donation to the charity of their choice, thus lowering the risk of people being motivated to cheat for money.

Use social media

If you don’t need thousands of respondents and your sample is pretty generic, the best resource can be your social network. For surveys with fewer than 300 respondents, we’ve had great success with tapping into our collective social network of Artefact’s members, friends, and family. Write a request and ask your colleagues to post it on their networks. Of course, volunteers still need to match the profile. When we send an announcement, we include a very brief description of who we look for and send volunteers to a qualifying survey. This approach costs little but yields high-quality results.

We don’t pay our social connections for surveys, but many will be motivated to help a friend and will be very excited to hear about the outcomes. Share with them what you can as a “thank you” token.

For example, we used social network recruiting in early stages of Purple development. When we revealed the product months later, we posted a “thank you” link to the article to our social networks. Surprisingly even for us, many remembered the survey they took and were grateful to see the outcomes of their contribution.


If you are trying to hit a certain sample size for “good” data, you need to over-recruit to remove the “bad” data. No survey is perfect and all can benefit from over-recruiting, but it’s almost a must for low-budget surveys. There are no rules, but we suggest over-recruiting by at least 20% to hit the sample size you need at the end. Since the whole survey costs you little, over-recruiting will equally cost little.

Cleaning up data

Cleaning up your data is another essential step of any survey that is particularly important for the one on a tight budget. A few simple tricks can increase the quality of responses, particularly if you use public recruiting resources. When choosing a survey tool, check what mechanisms are available for you to clean up your data.

Throw out duplicates

As mentioned earlier, some people may be motivated to complete the same survey multiple times and even under multiple profiles. We’ve spotted this when working with mTurk respondents by checking their Worker IDs. We had multiple cases when the same IDs were used to complete a survey multiple times. We ended up throwing away all responses associated with the “faulty IDs” and gained more confidence in our data at the end.

Check response time

With SurveyMonkey, you can calculate the time spent on the survey using the StartTime and EndTime data. We benchmarked the average time of the survey by piloting the survey in the office. This can be used as a pretty robust fool-proof mechanism.

If the benchmark time is eight minutes and you have surveys completed in three, you may question how carefully respondents were reading the questions. We flag such outliers as suspect and don’t include them in our analysis.

Add a dummy question

Dummy questions help filter out the respondent quickly answering survey questions at random. Dummy questions require the respondent to read carefully and then respond. People who click and type at random might answer it correctly, but it is unlikely. If the answer is incorrect, this is another flag we use to mark a respondent’s data as suspect.

Low-budget surveys are challenging, but not necessarily bad, and with a few tricks you can make them much more robust. If they are used as an indicative, rather than definitive, mechanism to supplement other design research activities, they can bring “good enough” insights to a project.

Educate your clients about the pros and cons of low-budget surveys and help them make a decision whether or not they want to invest more to get greater confidence in the quantitative results. Setting these expectations up front is critical for the client, but you never know, it could also be a good tool for negotiating a higher survey budget to begin with!

Posted in Discovery, Research, and Testing, Learning From Others, Methods | 6 Comments »


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  • Mark

    May 6, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Don’t you think it is rude to say “Thank you for your time, but we already have enough respondents like you” to participant? It sounds like “You are worth nothing for us. Get lost” Instead I would say “Thank you for you time. If selected, we will get in touch with you”. That is more polite I think.

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  • Nancy

    June 11, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    Great tip about making the labels on Likert scales more conversational.

  • Cantik Dan Sehat Alami

    August 17, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Great tip about making the labels — Cantik Dan Sehat Alami

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