Surveys: Don’t Just Set it and Forget it!



Hand holding wooden block with tick mark in a row with three other similar blocksFrom Library Research Service

Surveys are the rotisserie oven of the data collection methods. You simply “set it, and forget it!” That’s why it’s important to be strategic about how you’re reaching your target population. Otherwise, you may be leaving out key subsets of your audience—which are often voices that are already historically underrepresented.

Is your survey equitable? 

Let’s say you want to send out a survey to library users, so you print off a stack of copies and leave them on the lending desk for patrons to take. While everyone in your target audience may have equal access to the survey (or in other words, are being treated the same), they don’t all have equitable access. Sometimes people may need differing treatment in order to make their opportunities the same as others. In this case, how would someone who has a visual impairment be able to take a printed survey? What about someone who doesn’t speak English? These patrons would likely ignore your survey, and without demographic questions on language and disability, the omission of these identities might never be known. Upon analyzing your data, conclusions might be made to suggest, “X% of patrons felt this way about x,y, and z.” In reality, your results wouldn’t represent all patrons—only sighted, English-speaking patrons.

Who has access to your survey? 

Start by thinking about who you want to answer your survey—your target population. Where do they live? What do they do? What identities do they hold? Consider the diversity of people that might live within a more general population: racial and ethnic identities, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, religion, etc. Next, think through the needs and potential barriers for people in your target population, such as language, access to transportation, access to mail, color blindness, literacy, sightedness, other physical challenges, immigration status, etc. Create a distribution plan that ensures that everyone in your target population—whether they face barriers or not—can access your survey easily. Here are some common distribution methods you could use:

  • Direct mail – Here’s more information about how to do a mail survey and it’s advantages and disadvantages.
  • Online – For more information on how to make your online survey accessible, check out this article from Survey Monkey.
  • Telephone – In a telephone survey, someone calls the survey taker and reads them the questions over the phone while recording their answers.
  • In-person – Surveys can also be administered in-person with a printed stack of surveys or a tablet. However, with this approach you might run into the dangers of convenience sampling.

Depending on your target audience, surveys are rarely one-size-fits-all. The best plan is often a mixed-methods approach, where you employ multiple distribution strategies to ensure equitable access for all members of your target population.

Who is and isn’t taking your survey?

Great! You’ve constructed a distribution plan that you feel can equitably reach your target population, but did it work? The only way to know for sure is by collecting certain demographic information as part of your survey.

As library professionals, collecting identifying information can feel like a direct contradiction to our value of privacy. Yet, as a profession we are also committed to equity and inclusivity. When administering a survey, sometimes it’s necessary to collect demographic data to better understand who is and isn’t being represented in the results. Questions about someone’s race, ethnicity, income level, location, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. not only allow us to determine if those characteristics impact someone’s responses, but also help combat the erasure of minority or disadvantaged voices from data. However, it’s important to note that:

  1. You should always explicitly state on your survey that demographic questions are optional,
  2. You should ensure responses remain anonymous either by not collecting personal identifying information or making sure access to that information is secure, and
  3. Only collect demographic information that’s relevant and necessary to answer your particular research question.

Compare the data from your demographic questions with who you intended to include in your target audience. Are there any gaps? If so, re-evaluate your distribution plan to better reach this sub-group(s), including speaking to representatives of the community or people that identify with the group for additional insight. Make additional efforts to distribute your survey, if necessary.

Conclusion

Inequities are perpetuated by research and evaluation when we fail to ensure our data collection methods are inclusive and representative of everyone in our target group. The absence of an equitable distribution plan and exclusion of relevant demographic questions on your survey runs the risk of generating data that maintains current power structures. The data will produce conclusions that amplify the experiences and perspectives of the dominating voice while simultaneously reproducing the idea that their narrative is representative of the entire population. Individuals who have historically been excluded will continue to be erased from our data and the overarching narrative.

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