The UX of user research surveys

4 min read
Sarah Doody
  •  Jun 4, 2018
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Chances are you’ve probably done, and maybe even written, a few surveys. But let’s talk about the UX of surveys. Have you ever stopped the consider the experience someone has while filling out a survey?

Surveys are often impersonal, sterile, and feel like work. It’s rare that someone fills out a survey and thinks “Wow, that was really awesome!”

Let’s focus on a specific type of survey. When I start a new project, one of the first things I do is generative research, which helps us define the problem so that our solution is informed with insights instead of assumptions.

Generative research can be conducted through a number of methods including one-on-one interviews, field research, and diary studies. But when I first start out, I like to use surveys because they help me get a lot of feedback at once. Then, once I cast a wide net, I can identify people who may be good candidates for a follow-up interview or other forms of research.

Surveys are a time- and cost-effective way to get a high-level understanding of a problem or industry.

“Surveys help you get a lot of feedback at once.”

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One problem with surveys is the overwhelming amount of information they generate—especially if you have open-ended questions, which I highly recommend. So how do you even begin to sift through what’s useful, what’s not, and everything in between? How can we make it easier on ourselves to make sense of survey responses and give the respondent a better user experience?

Let’s take a step back…

In doing generative research, we want to understand the problem. The best understanding comes through insights we identify from the stories people tell us. So how can we get people to tell us more personal and detailed stories?

Related: How to quickly create a powerful survey

If we want better answers and personal stories, we have to ask better questions. Asking questions in first person helps us get better stories from our respondents.Twitter Logo

Let’s look at an example…

A few months ago, I wanted to understand people’s problems around creating a UX portfolio. So, I wrote a survey. Each question was set up to reveal a problem, obstacle, objection, or goal. The important piece here is how I phrased the questions:

Example 1: “What do you think is the hardest thing about creating a UX portfolio?”

Example 2: “My biggest problem when creating my UX portfolio is …”

Notice the difference? The second question is posted in first person.

Can you see how asking the question in first person, almost fill-in-the-blank or MadLibs™ style, makes it feel more personal?

“If we want better answers and personal stories, we have to ask better questions.”

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Now there’s nothing wrong with the first phrasing of the question. But using first person for your survey questions does have two key benefits:

1. First-person questions push respondents to recount actual past events rather than their opinions
As mentioned earlier, we want the respondent to tell us actual stories about their experiences. Stories are powerful because they tell us what the person actually did. If you’ve done usability testing, you know that what people say they would do versus what they actually do can be dramatically different.

Related: How to improve the UX of your UX portfolio

When we ask a question such as “What do you think is the hardest thing about creating a UX portfolio,” the responses may be opinion or hypothetical. But by reframing the question in first person, we increase the chances we’ll get the respondent to give us an actual personal story of their problems creating their UX portfolio.

A question such as “My biggest problem when creating my UX portfolio is…” helps push the respondent back to the last time they were working on their UX portfolio and hopefully recall the precise challenges they actually faced.

2. First-person questions help give us a standardized format for responses
This makes it easier for us to quickly scan and sift through to identify preliminary insights. I had 200 responses to my survey. But because I framed each question in first person, I was able to look at each person’s answers as a little story, such as this:

As you can see, these responses are very personal and authentic, and provide a glimpse into the true problems, goals, and motivations that people have with creating their UX portfolio.

This narrative is gold. It also easily lets me identify people I would want to follow up with for further discussion. Not to mention, these responses could be very valuable in the marketing activities because you could literally use, or test, the phrases and language from the responses.

Seeing 200 responses in a little story format such as this helped me quickly identify recurring themes, goals, obstacles, and more. It also helped be identify people that I later followed up with for more questions and conversation.

Final thoughts

Surveys are a cost- and time-effective way to understand a topic quickly, provided you ask the right people to fill out the survey.

But one of the challenges we often face comes after the responses are in: How do we make sense of so much information? By posing the survey questions in first person, we help increase the chances of getting quality responses. Plus, we set ourselves up to more easily analyze the responses because they’ll end up in a similar format which allows us to more quickly scan and synthesize the responses.

Want to learn more about user research?

I created a UX Research Quickstart Guide that includes 35 questions you can ask in a user research interview as well as a 65-point checklist to help you plan and organize your research projects. Plus, since you’re an InVision reader, I’m offering you 20% off my course, User Research Mastery—just request the guide to get the discount code!

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