How to recognize good employee survey design
Jason Lauritsen

By: Jason Lauritsen on June 13th, 2019

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How to recognize good employee survey design

Talent and Culture

Est. Read Time: 3 min.

It's become easier than ever to survey your employees. The technology is at your fingertips to create and send a survey whenever you want. This is both a good and a bad thing. While a survey can be one of the most powerful tools at your disposal in HR and management, the data you collect through a survey is only as good as the employee survey design.


Poorly designed surveys can result in misleading or unusable data. And to make matters worse, they’re confusing and frustrating for your employees. Good design is essential to ensuring that your survey has its desired effect.


Why employee survey design matters

Design in survey creation is fundamentally like design in any other domain—it’s about creating something with intention. We know good design when we experience it. It’s the product or experience that meets our needs so well that it feels like it was made specifically for us. It’s the new car that feels like it was built to fit you perfectly. Or a hotel room that seems to have everything you need in the exact spot where you need it.  


It’s tempting to assume that the design of a survey isn’t as important as it is in other domains. But, the lack of good design is why so many surveys end up being viewed as failures. Whether you’re responsible for creating a survey or considering approval of one, below is a list to help you evaluate if your survey is well-designed.  


1. The survey’s purpose is clear and well-articulated. The first step in design is to understand and articulate your intentions. Why are you doing a survey? What do you hope to accomplish through the survey? Without clarity of purpose, there is zero chance that your survey project will be a success. If there isn’t a clear strategy laid out for the survey project, start there before doing anything else.   


2. The language of the survey is simple and clear to the survey taker. When asking an employee for feedback about their work experience, the request should be easy to understand. The survey-taker should never need to pause and ask themselves, “What does that mean?” Surveys should avoid business buzzwords.


For example, while “collaboration” may get discussed a lot in the boardroom, it might be a word without much meaning to employees who work in retail or call centers. Use the simplest language possible to describe what you’re hoping to measure. When in doubt, share the survey items with employees at various levels and ask them to explain what the item means.


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3. Survey items and questions are validated and reliable. It’s important to remember that creating surveys is a science supported by decades of academic research. While anyone can write a question, it’s difficult to write a question that measures what you intend in a way that is consistent and reliable. To do this effectively requires some expertise.


This is why partnering with an external survey company or consultant is often so important. They will help you create a valid and reliable survey. In addition to offering survey consulting support, many of today’s survey vendors also offer libraries of pre-validated survey items for you to use as a resource.  


4. It's easy for the employee to access and complete the survey. Deciding what questions to ask is only part of design. There are also considerations about how to make the experience of taking the survey simple and painless for the employee.


Where and how are you making the survey available to employees (mobile, kiosk, web, etc.)? Is it easy to take, even for employees who don’t work with technology regularly? Are the instructions clear and in a language each employee understands? Great questions are of little use if employees find it hard to access and complete the survey.  


5. Reporting is easy to understand and motivates action. The process of designing a good survey can be complex, but understanding the results shouldn’t be. Most employee surveys are designed to inform and motivate change, often in the form of manager and leader behavior. If the survey results aren’t presented in a way that those managers and leaders can convert quickly into productive next steps, the impact of the survey will be minimized. Reporting and action planning should be discussed long before a survey is launched, not after the data has been collected.


The signs of bad survey design

If the above five criteria are met, you’re probably working with a good employee survey design. But, there are also some red flags you can look for that are likely indicators of bad survey design. If you see any of these red flags, ask a lot more questions before moving forward.


1. There are 100+ items and questions. While the best length for an employee survey is debatable, a survey should only be as long as it needs to be. A long survey, in my experience, is 50 to 60 items. Any more than that suggests you’re probably not clear on the purpose of the survey.


2. One-size-fits-all approach. While there are good reasons to use survey items that allow comparison to benchmarks, there is no one survey design that fits for every company. Your survey should be customized to your needs and culture. It should reflect your company’s DNA.  


3. It includes a measurement “index” without explanation and justification. There are a lot of survey vendors who claim to measure “employee engagement” or “well-being” within their survey. If that is the case, they should be able to explain to you how it’s being measured and what research was done to validate the index. If they cannot, you should be extremely skeptical.


When going through the effort and expense of doing an employee survey, make sure you’re using a survey that is well-designed to accomplish your goals. Otherwise, you may be left wondering why your survey project didn’t deliver the changes you expect.  


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About Jason Lauritsen

Jason Lauritsen is a keynote speaker, author, and consultant. He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. A former corporate Human Resources executive, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. Most recently, he led the research team for Quantum Workplace’s Best Places to Work program where he has studied the employee experience at thousands of companies to understand what the best workplaces in the world do differently than the rest. Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships, and author of his new book, Unlocking High Performance, to be published by Kogan Page in October 2018.