Applied Survey Methods

Applied Survey Methods

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Survey Pointers

“The rightful concern of statisticians is the use of science to
provide relevant information on large populations,
to be made available to decision agents
within a short period of time and
of acceptable quality.”

n this fast changing world, problems in almost all fields of human endeavor have to be solved and resolved on scientific bases. The influence of decisions based on quantitative information has never been more evident than in the present decade especially with the use of modern technology. Indeed, the growing complexities of the activities and functions of the various fields of endeavor have made the use of statistics imperative.

However, one major problem among statisticians, under a given circumstance and budgetary constraints, is the production of reliable data due to built-in biases of the collectors and/or respondents.

In many cases, the main cause of failure in any research undertaking is the wrong choice of method in the collection of data. This is especially true in the case of survey. While the confidence level can be established as basis for accepting the representativeness of the samples, and variability can be computed for estimating probable sampling errors, it is virtually impossible to do the same due to errors introduced through bias either positively or negatively.

Perhaps the most important point to remember is that, despite the formidable arrays of formulae, statements of confidence, and tests of significance, the quality of data collected is the most important aspect of any survey. The information generated by statistical manipulation can only be as good as the data upon which it was based. The adage "Garbage In, Garbage Out" (Smith, 1981), therefore, should be borne in mind when designing surveys and gathering data, so that the processing of the data will bear useful results.


     Surveys are usually undertaken to provide answers for researchers on problem situations. Sometimes, however, a researcher just wants to establish a baseline on particular aspects of a situation against which to subsequently measure progress.

     In any survey work, the first task is to identify the problem. Frequently, the researcher's objective is only half formulated, ambiguous, or a statement of observed symptoms about which he or she is concerned. Often, this is expressed as a question. One must get clear guidance on what to study before acting to develop a questionnaire or a lot of time and effort will go for naught. Once the purpose or problem has been stated in an objective manner, the need for a study will become clearer, and detailed survey questions can be formulated.

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Related Searches

In developing a concise statement of the problem, the following guide questions can be of help (Anderson, 1952):

 What new knowledge to be obtained?
 What hypothesis to be tested?
 What problem to be solved?
 What types of information should shed new light on the prevailing situation?

     Brainstorming is a useful technique for establishing the purpose. Accepting the suggestions of several other interested participants, uncritically, is a good way to get started.

General Guidelines for Questionnaire Design

     Discussed below are some important points to remember when preparing a questionnaire.

Single Purpose. Whenever possible, limit the survey to a single purpose. A poor, but frequent, practice is to try to accommodate several different things in one survey, rationalizing that it does not take much longer to ask another question while there, and it is cheaper than running a separate survey, etc. Unfortunately, a "multi-purpose shopping expedition" usually results in a cumbersome document that may never be completely analyzed, but which will effectively hinder the gathering and processing of data for the primary intended purpose. Furthermore, a sample survey that is properly structured to meet a specific need is generally not a suitable vehicle for answering multi-purpose questions from the same sample base. Consequently, even if analyzed, the additional data may be invalid.

     Limit the Number of Questions. Each question takes time and costs money to ask, process and analyze. Therefore, be selective. Screen each proposed question carefully and decide whether such answer can be more readily obtained elsewhere. If a questionnaire is too long, it can affect the attention and accuracy of the respondents.

     Avoid Leading Questions. Many people respond to please the interviewer. To avoid embarrassment, they tell what they think he/she wants to hear. Others deliberately distort their answers depending on how they perceive the answer may be used. One cannot eliminate all the problems in this area, but the survey can be improved considerably by being careful to phrase the questions as objectively as possible.

     Avoid "Memory" Questions. Questions which rely on an individual's recall and cannot be verified in any meaningful way are likely to have high degree of inaccuracy. Also, the longer the period of recall, the more inaccurate the answer is likely to be.

     Cross-Check Questions. If there is likely to be a strong element of doubt or distortion in the answer, provide for some probing or objectively verifiable cross-check questions, if possible. It is not, however, necessary to record the responses to probing questions.

     Clarity. Pre-test the questions before deciding on the exact wording to be used in the questionnaire. This is absolutely essential. Questions that may appear clear and straightforward to the survey designer may prove to be confusing to the respondent and could elicit irrelevant answers. Make sure the questions are phrased in the appropriate familiar dialect of the respondent to ensure understanding.

In addition to the above guidelines, the following can be of help to facilitate the preparation of a questionnaire:

Identification. Each question and possible response should be uniquely identified with either a number, letter, or both; so that in the processing and analytical stage they may be readily referred to without repetition or reference to the subject matter itself.

Multiple Choice. Structure the format so that as many questions as possible can be answered with a check mark. Spell out categories in which responses are expected.

Numbers. When numbers are required for an answer, indicate the desired units. Leave space for raw data to be recorded in other units. Often in the field, responses are not in terms of the units desired, and recalculation must be done prior to tabulation. If no space is available, the raw data may be inserted where the standardized unit response should go, which leads to gross errors.

Spacing. Leave enough space around each response. Remember that the answer is going to be filled under field conditions. Also make allowances for comments by the interviewer.

Block Answers. Standardize the manner for recording answers. Usually, a left hand or right hand column is easier for processing than responses scattered throughout the form, or on single line. For multiple responses of varying length, it is easier to record and tabulate the answers when the blank space precedes rather than follows the item.

Think Positively. Do not phase questions negatively if it can be avoided. It only confuses people. Before charging off and interviewing people, conduct study to plan the survey itself.


     How accurate do the results need to be in order to meet the objectives? Remember that data collection and accuracy can often only be obtained at a price, and even then, perfection cannot be provided from sampling. Diminishing returns for extra effort always exist at some point, while minimizing time and cost should be an important consideration.

     When one knows the purpose of the survey, and have reviewed the possible data, developed a questionnaire, and ready to go to the field, he/she should make a preliminary field visit and take few judgment samples in order to become acquainted with the study environment and potential problems. This will help to make the actual study more realistic, particularly in terms of scheduling.

Administrative Coordination

     Even though the actual target respondents may not be informed of the coming survey, it is usually desirable that the various government administrative officials in the area are advised of the intended visit. As long as the survey is carried out on a random basis, there is little possibility that this advance notice will enable the local administration to hide the problems that may exist.


     One should look for repositories of information pertinent to the survey like offices, addresses, phone numbers, names of key individuals, sources of possible master-lists of respondents, and other secondary data. Information on local market days, holidays, and key individual schedules are also useful, so that the actual survey can be timed for best effect. One can also gather information that will serve as basis for dividing the survey area into approximately equal clusters, in the event that clustering has to be resorted to.


     Make dry-run attempt at reaching few potential respondents on a judgment basis in another place using only locally available transportation and/or walking. Not only will this give a much better feel for the environment than riding around. Without such experience, one may encounter major difficulties. Either the survey is finished on time, but with inadequate sample; or continues until the quota is reached, delaying the processing of the data as a consequence.

     Knowing the approximate number of interviews that can be carried out in a day, and the total area to be covered, will help one to determine whether random sample approach is feasible or whether clustering will be necessary. If there is a need for clustering, strive for the maximum number of clusters feasible within the time available for the survey. Do not forget to include travel time to (and return from) the project area, as well as non-work time due to holidays, etc.

     An important point to note is that interviewing may not always be done during the workday. The respondents may usually be located at home during the evenings while during the day; they are at their places of work.

     The accuracy of a survey can be improved by drawing larger sample, while obtaining less than the required minimum number of samples may severely impair the results. In the field, it is difficult to retrace one's steps to resample individuals from areas that have already been covered, and frequently individuals pre-selected may not be available. Therefore, it is a wise practice to over-sample in advance, to utilize the survey team's time to the maximum extent possible. Also editing the information sheets during slack time in the day is timesaving and very worthwhile. It is much easier to backtrack locally for additional data. Incomplete questionnaires may have to be discarded.


     A detailed work schedule for completing each major step of the survey and its analysis must be prepared at the outset in order to complete the survey in time.


     Before starting the interview, make sure that the interviewee is the right respondent. Verify responses for accuracy by cross checking. Often, individuals misunderstand what the researcher is asking, or only tell what they think the researcher wants to hear. They may be trying to impress the researcher, gain his sympathy, or avoid discussing the topic at all for lack of knowledge or fear of embarrassment.

     Do not promise anything, except to pass on the information, unless there is an authority to take corrective action. The individual being interviewed may regard the researcher as a representative of the government who can and should do something about a local problem situation. Idle promises will only result in a lack of confidence and reduce cooperation the next time around.

     Use judgment whether to follow a structured questionnaire format reading off each item; or an unstructured interview style using the questionnaire as a checklist, but employing a lot of additional extemporaneous probing questions. The structured style may get a response to every answer, but may scare or inhibit the response, especially if the answer is recorded in the presence of the person being interviewed. On the other hand, some people feel more important when they see that what they say is being written down, and often think that if their responses are not written down, the interviewer may forget and/or fail to pass on their comments. Unstructured interviewing generally leads to a wide-ranging discussion. It may take longer but may gather more supplementary data that may also be useful. However, it is not generally possible to statistically analyze such additional data. Sometimes, it is critical that every respondent be given only the precisely formatted question, so that responses are standardized. Extemporaneous questioning often introduces interviewer bias.

Shao (1967) provides the following strategies which should be observed when conducting an interview:

1. Introduce one-self.
2. Make sure that the interviewee is the right respondent.
3. Put the individual being interviewed at ease.
4. Tell the reason for the survey and its use.
5. Tell the individual how he/she was selected to be interviewed.
6. Assure him/her of confidentiality or anonymity of results.
7. Tell him/her how long the interview is likely to take.
8. Ask if the time is convenient for an interview now.
9. See whether there is a suitable place to conduct the interview. Privacy is often desirable, especially when asking personal questions.


     After the data have been gathered and recorded, they must be edited, processed, and interpreted.


     Prior to use, raw data gathered must be screened using consistent guidelines. The principal purposes of this are to review for clarity, internal consistency, correction and mark-up for further processing. Preliminary editing in the field should speed up this process.

     Clarity. Data recorded under field conditions are sometimes almost illegible and/or unintelligible. Numbers may be illegible, and many cryptic comments may have been added to the standardized responses which might qualify the answers recorded from "Yes" to "Yes, but..." (Smith, 1981). Whenever possible, items that are questionable should be reviewed with the individual making the survey. However, the one conducting the survey cannot always read his/her own writing, and/or does not recall the context in which the comments were made, even though they may have seemed meaningful at the time.

     Where multiple choice responses have not been used, developing a standardized scheme to classify open-ended comments received is an extremely difficult task. Sometimes, there are things that were overlooked, or thought not to be important when designing the questionnaire, actually have great significance while other questions may no longer be pertinent. Thus, some preliminary modification (or even elimination) of questions and responses may be necessary. This emphasizes the need to carefully plan and structure the survey before gathering the data, not afterwards.

     Internal Consistency. Check marks may have been placed in more than one option of multiple choice questions even though it was originally specified that only "one of the above" was to be checked. There may be clarifying comments in the white space as to why, or there may be no explanation at all. With number responses, editing is frequently required to recalculate the recorded values into the standardized units requested.

     Correction. Decisions have to be made on how to treat questionable data. Should the data be rejected outright as erroneous; counted at face value regardless of its apparent error; or retained but reduced in value, with an attempt to figure the intent? This is all part of the editorial task.

     Mark-up. Finally, to simplify the data processing task which follows, it may be necessary to transform the check marks in the standardized responses into base numbers.

Calculating the Data

     After editing preliminary calculations and double-checking, the questionnaires can be ranked in descending (or ascending) order for each question, and then the data can be transcribed. From this, a frequency distribution can be constructed and the mean, standard deviation, standard error, and confidence computed.

     When the information has been computed for one question, the entire process should be repeated for the next questions until all the questions have been calculated.

     The entire database should be reviewed, rechecked, and recalculated after a suitable time interval to assure that it is as correct as possible.

     Then, the data should be analyzed and interpreted for comparisons, trends and significance with the use of tables, graphs, etc. Findings should be reviewed before proceeding.


     The final step in the survey process is to present the findings of the study. This is a very critical phase. In fact, it is the point of the whole exercise. Designing questionnaires, interviewing, and statistical manipulations of various kinds were just means to the end. Many well conceived, planned, and executed surveys fail miserably because they do not communicate with their intended audience. Remember that readers have not had the experiences in traveling, interviewing, researching and analyzing survey data -- so it is difficult for them to empathize with the researcher. They will only know what researcher tells them. It is imperative that they get the message loud and clear.

     The first principle of report writing, therefore, is to purge drastically. The second principle is to simplify what is left, and then summarize. If details must be included because they are too precious to throw away, consider putting them in an appendix in which other researchers may delight to wallow. Above all, provide the readers with a page or two of summary of the purpose of the study, the findings, and conclusions.

     Presentation is a whole subject itself. This paper is, therefore, limited to the following major points in writing survey reports:

 Avoid technical jargon, abbreviations and acronyms unless the intended reader is completely familiar with them.

 Round off numbers wherever possible, it does not usually distort a thing.

 Where tables are used, get all the data on one page whenever possible. There is nothing that will distract a reader from gleaning the message from the table, more than having to flip pages.

 Tables should be organized so that a single message is highlighted. Comprehensive matrices of basic data are only useful for researchers to analyze -- they do not communicate until they are interpreted. If there is a need to include a comprehensive table, the appendix is the place for it. Extract from it the point to be made, and then prepare a condensed version in the text at the appropriate point.

 After using a table, summarize in the narrative what the reader is supposed to learn from studying it. Some people have a mental block against numbers and only read the text skipping over tables.

 If there is a need to go into the detail on a point, and it would clutter up, then use a footnote. Remember, however, that a footnote is best seen at the foot of the page on which the point is raised. Footnotes, relegated to the back of the text, rarely get read in relation to the points they are clarifying.

     Obviously, there is much more to the subject than is contained herein. A number of topics worthy of extensive treatment have been simplified and summarized, while others have been completely ignored. In doing this, the writer tried to follow the "mini-skirt" principle -- keeping it long enough to cover the subject, and at the same time, short enough to remain interesting!


Anderson, R. L. and T. A. Bancroft. Statistical Theory in Research. McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1952.

Shao, Stephen P., Statistics for Business and Economics, Ohio, USA: Charles E. Merril Publishing Co., 1967.

Smith, Kenneth F., Applied Survey Methods for Development Projects, The US Agency for International Development Training Center, 1981.
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