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Surveys are designed to facilitate greater understanding of an issue or population. But differences in survey type and methodology can produce very different perspectives and results.

What is survey methodology?

Survey methodology is the study of survey methods. As a field of research, it is most focused on identifying the sources of error in surveys, so that they can be refined or eliminated to improve accuracy.

Considerations when developing a survey

Survey methods are shaped by their level of adherence to widely-accepted survey conventions. Rigid adherence to an established structure can ensure a reasonably reliable method, while more flexible configurations can sidestep obstacles and collect more information. The medium or platform used to collect responses is also key, as different methods have different tradeoffs. For example, online surveys allow researchers to more easily cast a broad net, while in-person surveys are more expensive and labor-intensive but can yield more in-depth responses.


Qualitative vs. quantitative data

  • Quantitative data is characterized by objective facts: numbers, statistics, and percentages. This more rigid type of data is used to answer questions of “what” and “how many” when studying the frequencies of behaviors and choices. It allows researchers to collect fixed values to use in theoretical models, and to generate other pertinent values such as averages, medians, and ranges. The methods of collection are fairly straightforward and utilize interviews, surveys, document review, and probability sampling.
  • Qualitative data is characterized by subjective observation: stories, anecdotes, and case studies. This more flexible type of data is more about the “why” and “how” behind subjects’ choices. It allows researchers to get a better understanding of people’s feelings and thoughts when placing raw data in a broader context. The methods of collection are more complex and typically rely on open-ended questions, interviews, questionnaires, group discussions, and observational analysis.

Longitudinal surveys

Longitudinal surveys take place over periods of time that can range from days to decades. Results are generally collected at regular intervals and incorporated into the survey’s timeline. Longer longitudinal studies allow researchers to track sets of quantitative or qualitative responses through longer spans of time. They are often utilized in medical or sociological studies, as the longer ranges of data can demonstrate clearer trends and yield more actionable results. There are three main types of longitudinal surveys:

  • Panel surveys periodically collect information from a sample of people drawn from a wider population.
  • Cohort studies focus on smaller groups of subjects with something in common.
  • Retrospective studies pull from datasets already collected over long periods of time.


Pulse surveys

Pulse surveys are short surveys that are periodically distributed in order to collect feedback from subjects. This feedback is typically collected through a mix of three to ten close-ended and open-ended questions. Often, pulse surveys are employed to gauge customer or employee satisfaction.

Regardless of type, surveys are important tools for dissecting what happened yesterday, understanding what customers want today, and better predicting what they’ll be looking for in the future.