Surveys - an introduction to online tools

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Last Update

This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, June 2017


Checlist survey validation.png
See also Canadian consumer health information (CHI) portal 800px-Flag of Canada.svg.png | Research Portal for Academic Librarians

Survey tools refers to software used to measure the opinions of users in libraries, their attitudes regarding library services or their acquisition of information literacy skills. Surveys are often used to collect quantitative data about the user's perceptions of services. Due to the rise of evidence-based health care (and formal survey tools such as the ARL LibQUAL+®), consulting with users and aggregating the resulting data is increasingly central to long-term strategic planning in libraries.

Surveying individuals and groups is a common assessment activity in libraries. What is the purpose of these surveys? They elicit opinions from a population of users and help with gathering factual information. When questions are administered by librarians face-to-face (F2F) or on the phone, surveys are called structured interviews. The web and social media have changed how surveys are conducted. Although online tools have made the capture and analysis of data more efficient, most aspects of the survey process benefit from easy access to data and users over the Internet.

Other benefits:

  • easy gathering of information about library services and programs
  • generating samples of students and faculty
  • creating online questionnaires to be completed anywhere
  • collecting survey data quickly and efficiently
  • analyzing survey responses using various statistical programs
  • generating reports for administration and management of the library
  • One of the significant barriers to academic librarians doing surveys online using web 2.0 services is that the data is stored in the United States; most if not all ethics review boards will not approve the research if the data is not stored in Canada. (See relevant FAQ here).

Survey evaluation tool

UBC License to Verint (formerly Vovici)

  • UBC Information Technology. Verint Survey Tool 4-star.gif
    • Data generated by Verint is stored in Canada. The interface is easy to use, and boasts advance survey design features, a wide range of reporting elements, the ability to solicit responses from specific groups; excellent support; and downloading data to spreadsheets.

Structure and standardization

Questions in most surveys are structured and/or standardized to reduce bias. There are several criteria for the order in which questions appear:

  1. from most to least important for the respondents
  2. difficult or potentially objectionable questions are put at the end
  3. ordered logically such as chronologically
  4. questions with identical response modes are put together

The first two criteria help to reduce the chances that respondents will decide to stop answering questions on the survey (they might do so when the first questions are non-salient to them or objectionable). Questions should be ordered in such a way that a question does not influence the response to subsequent questions. Surveys are standardized to ensure reliability, generalizability, and validity. Every respondent should be presented with the same questions and in the same order as other respondents.

Learning more about surveys

Online survey tools & resources

Advantages and disadvantages of surveys


  • efficient way to collect information from respondents; large samples are possible
  • statistical techniques can be used to determine validity, reliability, and statistical significance.
  • surveys are flexible in the sense that a wide range of information can be collected; used to study attitudes, values, beliefs, and past behaviours.
  • Because they are standardized, they are relatively free from several types of errors; relatively easy to administer.
  • An economy in data collection due to the focus provided by standardized questions. Only questions of interest are asked, recorded, codified, and analyzed. Time and money is not spent on tangential questions.
  • Cheaper to administer


  • Depends on subjects’ motivation, honesty, memory, and ability to respond. Subjects may not be aware of their reasons for any given action. They may have forgotten their reasons. They may not be motivated to give accurate answers, in fact, they may be motivated to give answers that present themselves in a favorable light.
  • Structured surveys, particularly those with closed-ended questions, may have low validity when researching affective variables.
  • Although chosen survey individuals are often a random sample, errors due to nonresponse may exist; people who choose to respond on the survey may be different from those who do not respond, thus biasing the estimates.
  • Survey question answer-choices could lead to vague data sets because at times they are relative only to a personal abstract notion concerning "strength of choice". For instance the choice "moderately agree" may mean different things to different subjects, and to anyone interpreting the data for correlation. Even yes or no answers are problematic because subjects may for instance put "no" if the choice "only once" is not available.

Questions formats

Survey questionnaires usually consist of a set of questions, each having a response format (i.e., a way in which the respondent has to answer the question). A distinction is made between open-ended and closed-ended questions. Open-ended questions ask the respondent to formulate his/her own answers. A respondents answer to an open-ended question is coded into a response scale afterwards. Closed-ended questions ask the respondent to make his/her choice from a given number of answer options. The response options for a closed-ended question should be exhaustive and mutually exclusive. Generally, four to seven response categories are recommended; for telephone interviews a maximum of five response categories is advised.

Modes of survey administration

There are several ways of administering a survey, including:

Online surveys

  • can use the world wide web or e-mail
  • web is preferred over e-mail because interactive forms can be used
  • often inexpensive to administer
  • very fast results
  • easy to modify
  • password-protected, easy to manipulate by completing multiple times to skew results
  • data creation, manipulation and reporting can be automated and/or easily exported into a format which can be read by statistical analysis software
  • data sets created in real time
  • some are incentive based (such as Survey Vault or YouGov)
  • may skew sample towards younger demographic
  • difficult to determine/control selection probabilities, hindering quantitative analysis of data
  • used in large scale industries

Face-to-face administration

  • respondents are interviewed in person, in their homes (or at the front door)
  • very high cost
  • suitable when graphic representations, smells, or demonstrations are involved
  • often suitable for long surveys (but some respondents object to allowing strangers into their home for extended periods)
  • suitable for locations where telephone or mail are not developed
  • skilled interviewers can persuade respondents to cooperate, improving response rates
  • potential for interviewer bias
  • Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI): the face-to-face interviewer is assisted by a computer to ask the questions and to record the respondent's answers

Telephone administration

  • use of interviewers encourages sample persons to respond, leading to higher return rates
  • interviewers can increase comprehension of questions by answering respondents' questions.
  • fairly cost efficient, depending on local call charge structure
  • good for large national (or international) sampling frames
  • some potential for interviewer bias (e.g. users may be more willing to discuss a sensitive issue with a female interviewer than with a male)
  • cannot be used for non-audio information (graphics, web tools, demonstration samples)
  • unreliable for some surveys

Mail administration

  • may be handed to respondents or mailed but in all cases are returned to researchers via mail.
  • cost is very low, since bulk postage is cheap in most countries
  • long time delays, often several months, before surveys are returned and statistical analysis can begin
  • not suitable for issues that require clarification
  • respondents can answer at their own convenience (allowing them to break up long surveys; also useful if they need to check records to answer a question)
  • no interviewer bias introduced
  • large amount of information can be obtained: some mail surveys are as long as 50 pages
  • response rates can be improved by using mail panels
    • members of the panel have agreed to participate
    • panels can be used in longitudinal designs where the same respondents are surveyed several

Intercept surveys

  • patrons are intercepted; either interviewed on the spot, taken to a room and interviewed or given a self-administered questionnaire
  • socially acceptable - people feel a library is an appropriate place to do research
  • potential for interviewer bias
  • fast; easy to manipulate by completing multiple times to skew results

Administration choices

The choice between survey administration modes is influenced by several factors: 1) cost, 2) coverage of target population and sampling, 3) flexibility of asking questions, 4) respondents' willingness to participate, 5) response accuracy.

Methods used to increase response rates / reduce nonresponse

Two types of nonresponse are distinguished:

  • unit nonresponse (sampled unit did not respond to any of the questions)
  • item nonresponse (sampled unit did not respond to some questions).

Item nonresponse can be accidental or intentional. One can deal with nonresponse through preventative methods (prevent occurance of nonresponse) or through curative methods (account for nonresponse during statistical analysis).

Strategies to reduce nonresponses

  • brevity - single page if possible
  • financial incentives
    • paid in advance
    • paid at completion
  • non-monetary incentives
    • commodity giveaways (pens, notepads)
    • entry into a lottery, draw or contest
    • discount coupons
    • promise of contribution to charity
  • preliminary notification
  • foot-in-the-door techniques - start with a small inconsequential request
  • personalization of the request - address specific individuals
  • follow-up requests - multiple requests
  • claimed affiliation with universities, research institutions, or charities
  • emotional appeals
  • bids for sympathy
  • convince respondent that they can make a difference
  • guarantee anonymity
  • legal compulsion (certain government-run surveys)

Sample selection is critical to the validity of the information that represents the populations that are being studied. The approach of the sampling helps to determine the focus of the study and allows better acceptance of the generalizations that are being made. Careful use of biased sampling can be used if it is justified and as long as it is noted that the resulting sample may not be a true representation of the population of the study.

Survey methodologies

Examples of online surveys


Personal tools