How to Simplify Survey Design

Sections of this topic

    Keeping It Simple

    Many of us have probably have had a past English teacher or colleague or two warn us about the plague of wordiness. “Keep It Simple!” they still admonish. Some of us, though, have trouble practicing it. “But I really want to make the best impression. And what about all those great ideas? We’ll fit it in somehow!”

    The other day read I read an article exhorting its readers to keep their writing simple. It said something to the effect of, “We already have pages and pages to read, so please spare us! Keep it brief.” The message struck home. And since then I’ve been having a series of “Aha” moments.

    Avoid the Pitfall of a Long Questionnaire: Understanding Causes

    The “Do-it-all” Questionnaire

    Let us apply that principle to evaluation. Say, you’re thinking of conducting a survey. The do-gooder in you wants this to be the best questionnaire ever. The temptation is so great to add this question and that question. To fill it chock-full of ideas you are borrowing from colleagues.

    Trying Not to Step on Anyone’s Toes

    And then there is the importance of involving all the stakeholders. Stakeholder A really wants to see these questions added. Stakeholders B and C want you add some more questions. They’re all valuable questions and this input is vitally necessary. Yet the manager or evaluator might be tempted again to take the easy way out and just include everyone’s questions. And that would give you one extra-long survey: one that is trying to— super-politely and super-humanly juggle too many balls at once.

    One Pitfall Leads to Another

    We all probably can relate to that with a sigh. We do our best to juggle everything and be super-people. But eventually you and I might just reach our limit. Sooner or later, one of those balls may have to drop. Those long surveys might wear out your program participants. And then you end up with overwhelming amounts of data to be entered, cleaned and analyzed in record-breaking speed. That translates into a long evaluation report overflowing with words and statistics that no one has time to decipher. I’ve travelled down this road early in my evaluation career. So how do we avoid this pitfall?

    A few initial thoughts:

    Communicate and Seek Consensus

    Try speaking honestly with your primary stakeholders. Express your appreciation for their commitment and their ideas while presenting the challenge of balancing multiple needs. Achieving this balance and managing the conflict that might ensue are valuable skills for an evaluator to hone. Reassure every one of the valuable role each one plays. Seek the wisdom and grace to navigate this difficult role, learning from older colleagues with years of experience. Then do your best to guide your group of stakeholders to achieve consensus or, at the very least, compromise about what the questionnaire should cover.


    Involve your small group of stakeholders in putting a shared goal for the evaluation into words. Start by listing your common goals for the program. Then ask the group to rank them and go from there.

    Practice Brevity

    Practice writing simple survey questions or better yet, adapt from others’ work. I’ve begun using e-mailing as an opportunity to practice trimming away unnecessary words and content. I’m practicing this with survey design too. It is very satisfying and liberating to be able to fit content in a page rather than two or three or five!

    Now we’d really like to hear from you. Do you think a shorter survey is realistic? Are there any challenging trade-offs?


    For more resources, see our Library topic Nonprofit Capacity Building.


    Priya Small has extensive experience in collaborative evaluation planning, instrument design, data collection, grant writing and facilitation. Contact her at Visit her website at See her profile at