Surveys provide valuable qualitative and quantitative insights, and they can take many forms. They help you with some of the hardest parts of experimentation: figuring out the value proposition the business’s product represents, the benefits it has for customers, and the voice and tone of the business’s sales pitch.

How to put together a survey.

If you haven’t run any surveys before, keep in mind that it’s very easy to do poorly. Surveys are often rife with misleading, time-wasting, or unhelpful questions. You need to make sure you’re asking the right ones. Erika Hall, designer and author of Just Enough Research, says:

It is too easy to run a survey. That is why surveys are so dangerous. They are so easy to create and so easy to distribute, and the results are so easy to tally. And our poor human brains are such that information that is easier for us to process and comprehend feels more true. This is our cognitive bias. This ease makes survey results feel true and valid, no matter how false and misleading. And that ease is hard to argue with.

If you’re new to surveys, read her piece on how to ask good questions, and make sure you’re asking questions that are clearly worded, easy to answer, and above all helpful to the business.

Next, you’ll want to ensure that you have access to customers to survey them. At most small businesses this is easy to do, but at larger businesses, surveying is often the purview of a separate department. You’ll need to work with that department to gain access to the right customer segment, and to ensure rollout won’t be hindered by internal issues. Once you’re ready, start with a survey into the business’s past customers. There are dozens of survey creators online. Sign up for one of them, create an account, and create your first survey. Populate it with questions, and then send it to the full list of past customers. Next, send a different survey to any new customers that reach the business’s site. Create a modal popover on the home page that asks if the visitor wants to get a discount on their order by taking the survey. Offer a discount code as thanks for completing the survey. In smaller businesses, promotion may be up to you. In larger businesses, someone else may be in charge of what goes out on the business’s social media or mailing list. In that case, you’ll need to coordinate with whomever is responsible for communications to provide the right wording and enticements for the survey. End each survey after one week. You don’t want to annoy people, and you want to act on insights quickly.

The anatomy of a survey.

What follows is the overall anatomy of a generalized survey. You can add or remove as many questions as you’d like.

The setup.

  • Explain the purpose of their responses, such as a redesign or product improvement.
  • Note confidentiality. Tell respondents they won’t be penalized for disliking the business’s product.

Softball questions.

  • Name.
  • Email address.
  • Whether they have been a customer.
  • If so, length of time, if applicable.

Focused questions.

  • Whether they recommend the product to friends or family.
  • Why they chose that response.
  • Why they chose the business’s product over competitors’ products.
  • How much research they put into their purchasing decision.
  • Whether there were any obstacles that prevented them from making their purchase.
  • What specific feature they liked most about the product.
  • Three more benefits of the product.


  • Whether you can contact them with further questions (and compensate them for their time).
  • Whether they have any final thoughts.

Surveys should be specific to the business.

Do not use these questions as is. Adapt them to the business’s context. For example, are there specific issues customers commonly experience? Is the business currently facing significant competition? Do you lack a confident idea of why customers buy the product?

Surveys give you the opportunity to ask about these and any other business-focused issues, so they need to be as specific to the business’s needs as possible.

Let’s talk about a few properties of good surveys.

Good surveys encourage a confident opinion.

Have you taken surveys that ask you to rank something on a five-point scale? If you answer three, that tells the business nothing.

Force a clear decision by using only even-numbered quantitative responses.

Good surveys don’t make assumptions.

No matter how confident you are about the business’s positioning, set those beliefs aside and assume nothing about who your customers are.

For example, if you make a tool that’s geared toward JavaScript developers, don’t assume all customers know JavaScript by listing a bunch of popular frameworks. Instead, ask a question like “What programming languages do you use day to day?,” create a text field for people to enter what they want, and analyze the frequency of the most common responses.

Good surveys don’t waste the customer’s time.

In Design for Real Life, co-author Sara Wachter-Boettcher recalls an incident she had when going to a new doctor’s office and was given a lengthy questionnaire that asked about every possible medical condition. Buried in there was a pretty awful question to ask: whether the patient had ever been sexually assaulted.

Her assault had occurred over a decade prior, and Sara was in the doctor’s office for a completely unrelated issue, but she checked “yes.” The doctor noticed, but only said, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” and moved on. The question was completely unnecessary, and it only served to make Sara feel horrible.

This is a drastic example, but it proves the point: at best, irrelevant questions run the risk of wasting the respondent’s time and losing them mid-survey. At worst, they risk offending or upsetting them.

Make sure that every one of your questions has a specific purpose. The shorter your survey, the better. Shorter surveys are easier to complete, which means you’ll get more responses as well.

Good surveys contain open-ended questions.

For example, take the question “what brand of car do you own?” This question makes assumptions. Some people don’t own cars. They lease cars, their partner owns a car and they don’t, or they use public transportation instead.

Good questions assume as little as possible about the respondent. “How do you get to work every day?” is better, but still makes an assumption: that the respondent is employed, or commutes to work at all. Instead, try “What’s your primary mode of transportation?” That way, you can tell how respondents get around, no matter where they are going and how they get there.

Note, too, that this question remains specific: it asks about the respondent’s primary mode of transportation. A lot of my friends own cars, for example, but most of their trips are so brief that they bike, especially during the summer. Their primary mode, then, would be bicycling. The question makes no assumptions beyond the idea that people sometimes leave their residence.

Good surveys solicit balanced responses.

In a perfect world, you should get about 10% power users or frequent customers, 70% existing customers, and 20% non-purchasers. Non-purchasers are always harder to survey because of their lack of interest. People who have used the product and care about it are the most likely to answer, but their responses could mislead you into believing that all customers are like them.

Make sure that your survey explicitly asks about customers’ experience with your product – or that you match your customers’ responses with their accounts, if possible.

Good surveys don’t ask about demographics unless necessary.

It’s tempting to ask a bunch of questions about customers’ demographics, but why are you asking? It could be a privacy risk; it could also reduce completion rates. Analytics will provide significant insight into your business’s target demographics – as well as the areas where your addressable market will need to expand.

Only ask for a customer’s demographic information if you have a specific reason for doing so. And don’t bother if it isn’t a pressing business need.

Good surveys are actionable for the business.

Every question in a survey should have a clear strategy behind its eventual analysis – and a purpose for its existence. Responses to survey questions should encourage a business to act in a specific way once they’ve been analyzed. Otherwise, you’re wasting both the respondent’s time and yours.

Auditing objections.

Surveys are terrific for figuring out when someone is ready to buy, and what the business can do to move them past the finish line. Ask questions that reveal purchase objections; later, you’ll analyze the information to plan experiments.

Focusing on value.

Just as you should collect objections, you should also understand your products’ benefits. Later, compare customers’ responses with the business’s stated benefits to determine if you need to experiment with sales copy.

If people praise the business and its product, ask them if you can use their words as a testimonial – and build a library of testimonials for future use.

Interview the best respondents.

After a survey, you’ll be sitting on a lot of valuable research. Know what you need to do next? Research further. Inevitably, there will be stories that stand out: people who provided detailed responses, offered nuanced critiques, or used the product in unexpected ways.

Email 5 to 7 of the best respondents individually, and ask to get on a 30 minute call with each of them.

Question your assumptions.

A great survey gives you the opportunity to adopt a new set of assumptions about your customers. On the one hand, this is vital for ensuring the ongoing health of the business. But psychologically, it feels horrible to throw out what you previously believed, and it’s scary to act on new information.

It’s easy for designers to come in and say, “Well, here’s what I think the business means to customers.” That is, after all, why the business hired the designer. But businesses find it difficult to internalize that same mindset shift. That’s why the value-based designer must encourage their client or bosses to do it. Remind them: This is what the customer says. If you’re truly advocating for the customer’s success, you owe it to them – and your practice.

Post-purchase surveys.

Post-purchase surveys ask a single question of a customer immediately after their purchase. Post-purchase surveys are easy to execute and analyze, and they provide solid, actionable customer feedback into perpetuity.

Post-purchase surveys give tremendous insight into customer motivations (allowing you to experiment with changes to the sales pitch), potential objections (allowing you to address those before they become bigger issues), and usability issues (giving you an opportunity to fix them).

You can add a post-purchase survey easily in two places: on the confirmation page and in the receipt email. You should put the survey in only one of these places. Integrating post-purchase surveys on the confirmation page might take a bit more work, but it usually has a higher response rate and is easier to integrate into your team’s chat.

Completions should be incentivized, such as with a discount, free shipping on their next order, or a free month of service. Make any incentive clear when the customer is presented with the survey, as doing so will increase completion rates.

Questions you can use.

You want your question to be sufficiently broad and open ended, empowering the customer to answer however they want. A well-phrased post-purchase survey question will reveal objections, usability errors, and strategic issues from a wide range of customer segments.

Good questions include:

  • How did you feel about your purchase today?
  • What was the last thing that held you back from purchasing?
  • Do you have any feedback for us?

Note how conversational and generic these questions are. You want to get the conversation going as easily as possible, not lead the customer in any specific direction.

The value of using only one question.

It’s tempting to add more questions to a post-purchase survey. Don’t. The goal of a post-purchase survey is to get as many of your customers completing it as possible. Every time you add a question to a survey, you harm its completion rate. You need only one generic question to ensure that you’re getting as much information as possible.

On your confirmation page.

First, create a new survey. Add a single question with a free-form, required text field with no character limit. Make sure the question is above the fold of your confirmation page on all devices.

Then, connect all responses to your team chat, so you have someone paying attention as responses come in. If you work solo, find a way to get the responses emailed to you, and filter them into a special inbox. Since you already have the customer’s email address from the purchase, add it as a hidden field in the form, so you can follow up with customers if needed.

In your receipt email.

Add a sentence to your receipt email’s template that asks one of the questions above, solicits replies to the email, and offers an incentive.

Gathering responses might be harder here, as people are likely to respond to the receipt email with customer support inquiries – if they read the receipt email at all. It may also require some additional effort to manually sift through responses. But you’ll still get a fair amount of useful insights.

Post-purchase survey synthesis.

If you’ve incorporated the right question in the right place, you’ll end up with a firehose of information. Many responses can be slotted into one or more clearly defined categories. For example, an online store might have the following:

  • Shipping charges.
  • Delivery dates.
  • Billing vs. shipping addresses.
  • PO boxes.
  • Assembly.
  • Upgrades and upsells.
  • Gifting to others.

Assess each proportion of the comments and questions that you get, especially as they change over time. If a lot of people ask questions about a specific issue, it might be worth running an experiment to try and address a potential objection.

Some people will assume the post-purchase survey exists as a way to get information or support. As a result, some responses will take the form of questions, and the business’s support team should answer those.

Other answers might warrant further research. Doing so makes the customer feel more heard – and you’ll be able to dive further into their motivations.

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