Tips on How to Survey Real People

Recently, I needed to learn some basic things from a group of people at the outset of a weekend-long training. Specifically, I wanted to find out:
  1. How capable they were at self-identifying the problems they faced; 
  2. How able they were at identifying root causes; 
  3. Whether they could determine what practical resources they needed.

To find this out, I printed three questions in circles on a 3×5″ card for respondents:

Sample 3×5″ survey card.
  1. Why are you here? 
  2. What can make you come back? 
  3. What do you need right now?

From those three questions, in addition to finding out what I sought to originally, I found what participants’ material needs were in comparison to their educational needs. I also identified how many participants actually understood why they were there.
I think surveys are an important tool for our toolkit on engaging all kinds of people, at least in a superficial, introductory way. You might decide that you can listen to people by surveying them. Here are some of my tips on surveying real people.
Tip 1) Remember the KISS Principle: Keep ISimple and Straightforward. 
Don’t over-complicate what you’re asking people. Being simple and getting straight to the point will ensure that you get answers that are… simple and straightforward. Don’t ask too many questions either. If you have to do multiple different question topics, make them visually distinct and keep them short. Also, keep the number of questions the same between each topic, like 3+3 or 4+4.

Tip 2) Make it interesting to look at.
The days of handing out lists of questions on clipboards are over. However, you don’t need to design a complicated app just to ask questions either. Keeping questions brief encourages respondents to answer how they’re most comfortable. Instructions given should be super simple, but reinforce the seriousness of the survey.

Tip 3) Avoid linear lines of questioning.
In my experience, many people don’t respond well to A-to-Z thinking, let alone attempts to force them into doing the same. Many surveys do this, either on purpose or by accident. Avoid this by keeping questions short, and removing any bias you might have about getting specific types of answers from respondents.

Tip 4) Ask broad questions about the future.
It can be challenging for people from diverse backgrounds to activate their future-thinking abilities, especially when they come from adverse situations. Because of this and other reasons, asking them specific questions about the future sight-unseen might turn them off to answering any other questions you ask. However, asking broad questions about the future may activate their future imaginations and allow them to trust you more because you believe they have something worth sharing about the future.

Tip 5) Don’t answer the question in the way you ask the question. Asking respondents, “What will you study in college?” assumes they’ll attend college and that they value it; and asking others, “What do you need to be successful?” and providing five things to choose from narrows their options and assumes they want your definition of success.

Similarly, asking questions about life assumes they think they think about life the way you do. For instance, some people have come to accept this formula:

  • Life = grades K-12 + college + career.

However, for some other people, the formula looks more like this:

  • Life = K-2 then move, 2-5 then repeat 5th grade, 5-7 then get expelled for bringing a gun to school, 7-10 then juvie for shoplifting too much, then drop out and get GED, then tech school for a quarter, then dropout to fight addiction… 

In many cases, the lives of real people are too disjunctive to attach your expectations to the questions. Don’t allow your biases to influence your survey. Try to release those and ask different questions.

Tip 6) Ask questions in bubbles or circles or triangles or… 
Organize paper and online surveys using a graphic interface in order to make them more visually stimulating to real people. However, be aware of the effects of shapes or colors on participants. Variation between the shapes might cause them to inadvertently put more weight towards the object they find more appealing or familiar. Here‘s an interesting summary of what I’m talking about.
Tip 7) Customize for your audience. 
Effective surveys for real people are like effective programs: they must be to respondents’ unique needs and capabilities. Here are some sample questions and the audiences they’re intended for:

  • “What are you responsible for right now?” —To help determine what a neighborhood group sees itself capable to doing through a community service project.
  • “Describe your life in the next 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years.” —To help a program identify what services they can provide for formerly incarcerated people in order to help them succeed.
  • “What do you need to change your life right now?” —To identify whether service industry workers see there are options between short-term and long-term planning.
  • “What’s your plan for the next three years?” —To help a GED program determine how to appeal to youth participants.
Tip 8) Let respondents know you’ll take it seriously. Rarely are interviewers held accountable to survey respondents. This is your opportunity to let them know you’re going to do something with what they say, and that you honor what they write down. Without this reassurance, respondents might reply in one of three ways:
  • Refusing—”That’s your job to decide,” or “You tell me,” respondents may protest.
  • Testing—Offering outrageous suggestions or responses to see if the interviewer is really serious about the invitation to answer the survey honestly.
  • Parroting—Repeating what the interviewer has said or guessing what they want to hear. A respondent might be asked to suggest a problem in the program and write, “We should keep our noses to the grindstone and finish the job,” even though they’re not planning to do this themselves. 
These responses are conditioned from years of not having opinions taken seriously. Challenge respondents by letting them know you take them seriously, and then follow through.
Surveying real people can be richly rewarding and almost immediately beneficial to your program, nonprofit organization, school, or other location. For more information contact us.
    Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

    Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

    I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s