Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about survey research – asking the right questions

Published on 19/11/2014

Surveys, polls and market research are ubiquitous in today’s world, a predictable response to the ever growing pressures to better understand audiences, customers and stakeholders. Everyone is doing it, but doing it effectively is often a challenge, especially for non-profits which typically lack the internal expertise and financial resources of governments and corporations. Today, collecting survey data has never been easier, thanks to the many inexpensive online tools now on the market. But these tools do not help address the more important questions about determining what information to collect, how to effectively reach target populations and how to make sense of the data collected. Keith Neuman presented five good ideas that will change how you think about and conduct survey research.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Ignore the political polls, as they present a distorted picture of what survey research is about and what it can do.
  2. The unique contribution of surveys comes from their power to combine many individual stories that together tell an important collective story.
  3. The primary task of survey design and analysis is “translation”: Transforming your organization’s questions into a language that is meaningful to those you want to hear from, and then reinterpreting what they tell you to answer those questions.
  4. Numbers are an important component of survey research, but survey research in the end is not about the numbers but the story behind them.
  5. Survey research is all about give and take: It should be as valuable to the participants as it is to the researcher and sponsor.

Five Good Resources

  1. How to Lie with Statistics. Darrell Huff (1954). An old but classic book that concisely and accurately profiles the various ways that statistics can be distorted and misrepresented.
  2. Internet, Phone, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method. Don Dillman (2014). This is one of the most useful textbooks on survey design theory and practice, written by one of the global experts on the subject.
  3. American Association of Public Opinion Research. This is the leading professional association for public opinion researchers, which next year is celebrating its 70th anniversary. The website provides a wealth of information and resources on a range of topics of interest to both researchers and consumers of research.
  4. Elon University. Videos on survey research (2014). There are ten short practical three-minute videos posted on Youtube that cover such topics as defining sampling error, describing methods of data collection and explaining how to read a crosstab.
  5. Presentation Zen. Garr Reynolds (2007). This is an excellent resource on how to effectively present all forms of information in PowerPoint, including survey data. The book is worth owning for its beautiful and inspiring examples, but the key points are also covered in this concise pdf.

Keith Neuman, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Environics Institute for Survey Research

Keith Neuman is the Executive Director of the Environics Institute, a non-profit research organization whose mission is to promote public opinion and social research on important issues of public policy and social change. In this role, he has directed landmark studies focusing on under-researched segments of the Canadian population (e.g., Urban Aboriginals, Muslims, Blacks), as well as broader public opinion studies on such topics as citizenship, democracy, climate change and multiculturalism. Previous to this position, Keith spent 25 years in senior positions with leading research firms in Toronto, Halifax and Ottawa, working with a wide range of clients in the public, private and non-profit sectors. Keith holds a Ph.D. in Social Ecology from the University of California, and holds the credential of Certified Marketing Research Professional (CMRP). He is a frequent media commentator on social trends and public opinion.