Thursday, June 12, 2014

Survey Writing

When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing

By Laura Iles - Senior Consultant, Integrated Insight

This week, I took a survey to evaluate an online purchase I made with a major company. What I found was an interesting, though ultimately failed, attempt to direct attention through an excessive use of CAPITALIZATION, underlining, bold, and italics. The overall effect, far from helping me to identify key pieces of information, was to overwhelm me with awkwardly presented information.

When respondents find a survey difficult to read, they are more likely to abandon the survey entirely or, worse yet, select random answers. While market researchers put measures in place to identify randomly selected responses, it’s a much better use of resources to reduce the likelihood of capturing invalid data on the front end.

In today’s age of one-sentence updates and bulleted articles, yes, readers skim, and it is necessary to take this into account when designing survey questions. However, overemphasis makes it even more difficult to understand the content. Caps lock reads to most of us as yelling. Which is not to say that it’s never useful, but it is important to retain awareness of how the writing is interpreted by the end user.

The use of formatting to accent particular information is easy enough to get away with on a short question with one detail emphasized. What follows is a logical use of capitalization from the survey in question: the formatting emphasizes the main point of a very simple question.

Even skimming, I know immediately what the survey is asking, and what my answer will be.

It is more difficult to accomplish on the following question, because there are so many parts. By emphasizing everything, the author of the survey made it more difficult to extract the critical information.

I had to read the question multiple times to understand what was being asked; it’s overly verbose and convoluted. Underlining and capitalization do not make up for imprecise sentence structure. Further, the majority of each answer is underlined, rendering the emphasis invalid. When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

As a writer, it’s tempting to think every piece of information you write is important, and should be accentuated. It’s not. The primary job is to convey information with clarity, and that almost always requires heavy editing.

Knowing how to identify the important information, eliminate the rest, and direct the reader’s attention without causing overwhelm is a critical skill for survey-writing, just as it is in a business plan or the next bestselling novel.

Let’s take a look at a potential rewrite of the offending question:

Extraneous and repetitive information have been eliminated in favor of clarity, and only the details which differentiate each of the answers are emphasized.

Quite a bit of skilled work goes into survey-writing and design, and even small details will impact response rates and reliability. Good surveys start with clearly written questions.

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