There are many user research methods a UX designer has at their disposal.

There are usability tests, user interviews, A/B testing, focus groups, card sorting, diary studies and so on. But there’s one that is unmatched in its ability to quickly gain valuable insights into your users: The Online Survey.

You can make online surveys work for or against you. They can either strengthen or weaken your case; give you insight into the important or unimportant; or set you on the right or wrong path for product improvement and user satisfaction.

Getting them right is as much of an art as it is a science – and it’s largely about asking the right questions.

First, let’s consider what exactly it is that makes the humble survey so useful to the design process.

Why Use Online Surveys

Quick, Easy and Inexpensive: The most common reasons as to why there is a lack of user research in companies is because it’s thought to take too long, hard to do and cost too much.

The online survey is the perfect tool to counter those excuses, especially when there are many companies vying for your business at a low cost– and in some instances even for free.

Choose from SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, SurveyGizmo, Hotjar and Wufoo to name a few.

Qualitative and Quantitative Data: Multiple-choice and open-ended questions can be asked, providing you with both quantitative and qualitative data.

Influential: One of the most challenging parts of a UX designer’s job is influencing stakeholders that time, money and resources should be spent on changing the product. Surveys have the unique ability of enabling you to point to a large amount of data at a very high confidence level.

Unambiguous: When the sample size is large and the margin of error low, there is less room for interpretation

3 Golden Questions

Imagine if there was a way to gain great insight into your users with as little effort as possible.

If all it took was just three questions to know their goals; if you were meeting them and if not, why not; and how you could deliver the best possible experience.

Fortunately, there is – and it’s by asking what is referred to as the 3 Golden Questions.

  1. Why did you visit our website/app today?

This simple question gives you insight into your users’ goals.

  1. Were you able to complete your tasks today?
    • If not, why not?

By asking this question you learn whether you’re meeting your users’ goals or not. If yes, then great, you can move onto the final question. If no, it gives you the opportunity to learn what you are doing wrong and what obstacles are being put in front of your users.

  1. What improvements would you make?

At first glance this question appears to be too broad and open-ended.

But that’s the point.

Asking your users about a specific feature you have in mind is a loaded question that looks to confirm your own bias. Something that they perhaps wouldn’t have even considered unless presented to them and something they probably don’t care too much about.

Instead, by keeping this question open-ended, you may start to notice a pattern form and realize something that you never even considered before.

There’s just one catch with the 3 Golden Questions. It’s a small one but it’s vital. You must present these questions only after users have spent some time on the site.

Thankfully, several survey tools make this easy to do. You can configure a survey to display after a certain amount of time has elapsed or a certain number of pages have been viewed.

Open-Ended vs Close-Ended Questions

There are two types of questions you can ask: Open-ended and close-ended questions.

You may have noticed that the 3 Golden Questions largely focus on the former. Even when a user is asked whether they are able to complete their tasks or not, which is a close-ended question, they are still asked to explain why if they can’t.

At first glance it might seem as if open-ended questions are more valuable for the deeper insights they provide. What you actually want, though, is a balance of the two.

The advantage of asking both types of questions is that you receive qualitative and quantitative data. The data is subjective and interpretive as well as objective and statistical. It provides deep as well as broad insights and is measurable as well as unmeasurable.

Both types are useful to gain a better understanding of your users and analyze your data in different ways.

So, when you design your survey, make sure that you have a balance of the two.

How to Decide Between the Two

While you want to use have a balance between open-ended and close-ended questions, it isn’t always clear which one you should use.

You can answer this question by asking another question:  Will the data you receive from this question help you to make any changes to your site/app?

For example, if we go back to one of the Golden Questions: Were you able to complete your tasks today? If you just left it at that and users selected “No”, you would have no idea how to improve the UX. By additionally asking “If not, why not?”, you then know what changes you can make.

Keep in mind that it often takes very little to modify a question to receive a better response.

Sample Sizes

A quick note about sample sizes.

You can present your survey to as few or as many people as you want. Sometimes you might not have much say in the matter and be limited by the number of users you have or the size of your audience.

What it usually comes down to though, is just how comfortable you are with the margin of error your data provides.

SurveyMonkey provide a useful calculator to work out what the margin of error will be.

4 Rules to Follow

With every survey you design you want to maximize the response rate and gain greater insight into your users.

The following guidelines ensure you can do just that.

  1. Always ask the 3 Golden Questions: There is no better way to gain insight into your users
  2. Restrict the survey to no more than 10 questions: 10 questions are almost always enough to find out what we need to know and how we can improve while maximizing the response rate
  3. Don’t ask redundant questions: Redundant questions are those that produce data we can get from other sources like our analytics. They’re a waste of a question.
  4. Only ask genuinely useful questions: The best way to know if you’re asking a genuinely useful question is to ask yourself if the data can be used to make any changes. If not, ask a more useful question