Survey – Concept, types, function, characteristics and examples

We explain what a survey is, its types, characteristics and what they are for. Also, examples and how to prepare a survey.

Surveys allow obtaining statistical data.

What is a survey?

Surveys are a type of information gathering instrument, which consist of a predesigned set of standard questions, aimed at a socially representative sample of individuals, in order to know their opinions or views regarding any problem or issue that affects them.

These questions are always previously designed by the research team, according to the hypothesis that they seek to submit to the empirical verification of public opinion. Therefore they can be of two different types:

  • Open, when the respondent can answer the questions in their own words, which gives them greater freedom of response and allows them to reach a greater depth in them, such as answering the reason for what was said, or obtaining new and different answers.
  • Closed, when the respondent is offered a set of possible answers and asked to choose the one that best suits their opinion. These responses have the virtue of being simple and easy to totalize and quantify to obtain statistical data.

The survey application it is a very common method in different types of research, whenever they require the collection of statistical data, the compilation of opinions or some type of massive consultation that allows later to be interpreted to obtain conclusions. Policy, market or service evaluation surveys are some possible examples of this.

Survey characteristics

In general terms, the surveys are characterized by the following:

  • A method of non-direct observation of reality, that is, mediated by the opinion of the surveyed subjects: we trust their opinion, we cannot observe them in their real lives to know if what they answer is true or not.
  • Is about a simple research tool, economical and with massive and standardized application capacity.
  • It is the simplest and most effective way to massively access the subjectivities of the general public. They are ideal when it comes to a very wide audience.
  • Yields accountable results, expressed in percentage terms, which must then be interpreted by the researchers.
  • Requires further study and greater control to avoid sampling bias, that is, the answers are already determined by the questions themselves.

What are the surveys for?

In general, surveys are intended to measure the relationship between certain demographic, social and economic variables, as well as the patterns and proportions that emerge from them, and that allow us to obtain some type of conclusion on a certain topic.

This means that they are a tool to capture, from a randomly chosen sample, an approximation to the majority opinion (that is, to the subjectivity) of the public regarding said topic.

Types of surveys

survey types
Digital surveys are carried out with specialized software.

There are several types of survey classification, depending on the criteria that are taken into consideration. For example, if we look at the logic expressed in the survey, we will have two classification categories:

  • Descriptive surveys, which, as its name indicates, intends to describe the state of the matter, that is, they seek to reflect the current status of the subject around which the survey revolves.
  • Analytical surveys, which are not limited to the description of the subject in question, but pursue some kind of explanation or why in this regard. For this, at least two different variables are usually contrasted and interrelated.

On the other hand, if we look at the physical method used to carry out the survey, we will have:

  • Pencil and Paper Surveys (PAPI), in which the respondent must fill in or mark the circles of the options that they consider correct or appropriate, or write the answer that is requested in their own handwriting.
  • Telephone surveys (CATI), applied through a computerized system that asks the client to enter the numbers corresponding to the options that he considers correct in each question, and keep a record of what was selected.
  • Digital or web surveys (CAWI), carried out online, through computer systems such as the Internet, or pieces of specialized software for computers, smartphones, tablets, etc.

How is a survey carried out?

To prepare a survey, it is advisable to follow the following steps:

  • Define the survey objectives. First of all, you should know what you want to find out with the survey, that is, what type of information you are going to seek and for what purposes. Only by having this clear will you be able to design the correct methodology for the results you are looking for.
  • Define and delimit the population to be surveyed. Now that you know what you are looking for, it is time to think about who should ask about it. Your population to be surveyed must be appropriate for the answers to make sense, and the validity of your conclusions will also depend on it. Think of it this way: if you only ask your friends if you are a good guy, the survey will most likely confirm that you are, because if they thought you were not, would they be your friends?
  • Design the survey questions. From the intersection of the two previous points, this third is deduced: if we know what we want to find out, and we know who we are going to ask it, it only remains to know how we can ask it. There are different techniques and models for this, but in general it is always advisable to go from the most general to the most specific, through an ordered and hierarchical set of short questions, so that the respondent does not lose enthusiasm in answering. You should also take care of the aesthetics and appearance of your survey, and verify that your questions no longer contain the answers you are looking for, that they do not induce a certain way of thinking and that they are respectful and easy to understand.
  • Apply the survey. It’s time for the litmus test: your survey must go to your target audience and collect the desired information. To do this, you must coordinate your team and carry out the work in a methodical and organized way, which influences as little as possible the way in which respondents respond. If you are looking for explanatory and deep answers, it is not convenient for your survey to be by telephone, for example.
  • Analyze the data obtained. The survey would be nothing without the interpretation of your data obtained, expressed in statistical percentages or in any other way. If everything went well, you should have a sample that allows you to reach some kind of conclusion, even if that conclusion is that the survey has not been able to determine what you were looking for. In that case, you will have to go back to the beginning of these steps and redesign your survey, taking into account the errors of your first attempt.

Survey examples

Some survey examples on-line are as follows:

  • Survey on COVID-19 carried out by the Institute of Social Sciences of the UADE (Argentina). In this link you will find the report on how the survey was applied and you will be able to see your questions, as well as the results obtained expressed in graphs.
  • Consumer habits survey 2016 carried out by the Participation Table (a group of consumer associations in Spain). In this somewhat extensive document you will find the detailed report of the information obtained with the survey and, of course, the survey model used.
  • Survey on the use of social networks carried out by students of the Autonomous University of Durango (Mexico). In this case, you will be able to answer the survey yourself, and thus see it “from the inside” as one of the respondents.

Survey and interview

We should not confuse surveys with interviews. Open and oral questions tend to predominate in interviews, who seek case by case to come up with a series of subjective responses, in the manner of a very formal conversation.

They lack the versatility of surveys, as they cannot, for example, ask the interlocutor to choose from a predetermined pool of options. Also, in the interviews the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee usually carries a lot of weight, while surveys are usually much faster and anonymous.

Finally, it is also convenient to distinguish questionnaires, which are ordered sets of questions, very similar to surveys, designed to evaluate a person exclusively, as occurs in school exams. Instead, surveys pursue a set of interpretable information, without there being correct and incorrect, valid and invalid answers.