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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Frequently-asked questions

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Open/close headingI don't know anything about computers. Will I be able to set up an online questionnaire?

The simple answer is yes. There are a number of ways that you can set up a questionnaire. You do not need to be an expert in computers, but you may need to be prepared to spend some time learning some new skills.

If you do not want to spend a great deal of time doing this, producing the questionnaire yourself is not likely to be the best option. If you are working in an institution, it is a good idea to check what support is available to you. It may be that there are systems in place which you can use to get a questionnaire online.

Alternatively you could use one of the many online questionnaire software and hosting services that are available. These aim to make it possible to get a questionnaire online and gather results with little or no technical skills. They generally use a forms-based interface to take you through the whole process of developing and implementing the questionnaire. There are a wide range of options available for different budgets and with different features, and you may need to spend some time working out which of the services to choose. The 'Choosing software' section includes an activity designed to help you to work out what features you will need for your questionnaire. It will allow you to develop a checklist of features that you can use when comparing products. The 'Using software' section also provides an outline of the typical procedure for creating and administering a questionnaire using these products.

The 'Introduction to online questionnaire production: Overview and options' section of this 'Technical guide' module provides a detailed overview of the different methods you can use to implement a questionnaire and the technical skills and knowledge that will be required depending on the method you choose.


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[Open/close heading]How long will it take me to learn to set up an online questionnaire?

From a technical perspective, this very much depends on what your experience of web design is at the outset, what support is available, and what method you choose to get the questionnaire implemented.

If you are developing a questionnaire yourself and you have little experience of web design, you will need to spend some time learning about technologies such as HTML and CSS in order to set up a web form and related pages such as an informed consent page. You can also use WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) software such as Macromedia Dreamweaver or Microsoft FrontPage to develop the questionnaire, although an understanding of HTML will help you with this. You should set aside around 10-20 hours to learn the skills to develop the questionnaire and ensure it is designed effectively. If you plan to add extra features to your questionnaire such as validation or the gathering of information about participants' computers, you should expect to spend at least this time again to learn how this is done. Finally, if you do not have support to help you to upload the pages to a server and add server-side processes to validate and deal with the data collected, this is likely to take another 15-20 hours.

Of course any institutional support that may be available (such as an automated service to email results to the researcher) will reduce this time, but in this case you are likely to need to spend a couple of hours working through the details of the system to ensure that the questionnaire you create is suitable and meets any conditions that may be imposed.

If you use an 'off-the-shelf' software and hosting service you should expect to spend an hour or so finding the right service for your needs and budget and then to spend some time working out how the software is used to develop the questionnaire and how to use the different options available. You should have a fully working questionnaire in a few hours.


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[Open/close heading]What equipment will I need?

The minimum equipment you will need to design the web pages for the questionnaire is a simple text editor, such as notepad for windows, and a browser such as MS Explorer or Mozilla Firefox in which you can test your pages. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) software such as Macromedia Dreamweaver or Microsoft FrontPage can also be used to aid the design of the questionnaire.

You will also need access to a server on which you can upload your questionnaire to make it available online. Depending on how you choose to process the data, you may also need access to a database on the server (Alternatively, you may choose to email the results). In most cases, a simple text editor is the only thing required for the creation of server-side processes to deal with the questionnaire data. Depending on the server and the server-side technologies available to you, however, you may also choose to download software which will help you to do this. See the 'Server-side processing' section for more information about the different technologies and software that can be used.


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Open/close headingWill I be able to get help from my University/organisation?

If you are working within an institution such as a university, a government department, an NHS trust, or a charitable organisation, technical support may be available which may even extend to the bespoke conversion of a paper-based questionnaire to a web version. If this is not available, there may also be standard procedures in place for implementing web forms once they have been created by the researcher. This may, for example, involve a mailing facility whereby the data is automatically formatted and delivered by email when the form is submitted. It may also involve a facility allowing the data to be downloaded in an appropriate format for importing into a statistical analysis, database or spreadsheet package. The institution may also have purchased a site licence for an off-the shelf survey creation and administration package which may be suitable for the purposes of the research project and, in educational institutions in particular, site licences may also have been purchased for assessment software which may provide the facilities required for the implementation of a basic questionnaire.

The first step in finding out about these systems is usually to check the institution intranet or to contact computer services.


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[Open/close heading]Are there any limits to the number of question types I can have?

In HTML pages, there are five basic forms of form controls for inputting data as follows:

Text box

Check boxes


Radio buttons


Text area

Select box

Of course, these can be organised in different ways to create different question types. For example, tables can be used to group radio buttons into grids for Likert scales or semantic differential questions, as in the following example:

Complete the following statement by choosing the number that most closely matches your opinion for each row:

The internet is:

  1 2 3 4 5  
boring interesting
difficult easy
risky safe
useless useful

See the 'Web forms' section of this 'Technical Guide' module for further details.


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[Open/close heading]What is the best question type?

There is no simple answer to this question as this is likely to depend on the context of the research. An activity designed to explore the length of time needed to complete different types of questions is available as follows:

Below, you will find link to a live example of an online questionnaire with different online question formats. The total length of time taken to complete the questionnaire and the time required for each question. You are asked to consider the effect of question type on the length of time taken to complete each question.

[i] The questionnaire will open in a new window, which you should close to return to this page.

Example questionnaire


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Open/close headingDoes it matter what I put in as the default answer?

For check boxes, radio buttons and select boxes, it is possible to specify which of the options is specified by default as shown below:

Check boxes


Radio buttons


Select box

In the case of radio buttons and check boxes it is a good idea not to set a default option as it will be impossible to establish whether or not the option was actively selected by the participant or whether the question was unanswered. For select boxes, if the default answer is 'Choose an option' as in the example above, this will not be a problem as this answer will clearly indicate non-response.


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Open/close headingIs it better to have a single-paged questionnaire or one that spans multiple pages?

One-page questionnaires are generally more straightforward to implement as they consist of a single web form which can easily be processed through the submission of this one form. Where the questionnaire is relatively short and straightforward in terms of structure, this is likely to be the best option.

However, with longer or more complex forms, attempting to present the entire questionnaire in one page may lead to problems such as the following:

  1. Presenting all questions at the same time may give an impression of greater length which may discourage participants from proceeding.
  2. Opportunities to validate individual questions or smaller groups of questions as the participant progresses through the questionnaire may be reduced (see the 'Form validation' section). In turn, this may lead to frustration if all questions are validated at once at the end of the questionnaire.
  3. Although skip patterns can be introduced through linking to anchors further down a page or through instructing participants to skip a question by scrolling to the next, this may not be the most effective or intuitive method of delivering the questions.
  4. If a participant drops out mid-questionnaire, all data will be lost and there will be no opportunity for collection of partially-completed questionnaires or for identification of questions that may be precipitating drop out.

For longer questionnaires, the use of multiple pages can add to the effectiveness of question delivery, providing clearer routes through the questions and offering the opportunity for a more sophisticated presentation of skip patterns. For example, links to different sections can be added which participants can be prompted to select according to the answer to key questions. However, because all the questions are not made visible, submitted and processed at the same time, a number of extra aspects must be considered

  1.  An indication of progress through the questionnaire must be given, either through the use of a progress bar (see the 'Key design issues' section of this 'Technical guide' module) or through structuring the questionnaire into different sections and indicating the nature of this structure to respondents (see the information about questionnaire length in the 'Design of online questionnaires 2: Content' section of the 'Online questionnaires' module). If this is not done effectively, uncertainty over progress or a realisation that the indicators of progress are inaccurate, may lead to frustration and drop out.
  2. A decision must be made on whether data should be submitted for processing at the end of each page, or at the end of the questionnaire. If it is done at the end of each page, this will allow partially-completed questionnaires to be collected and any problem questions to be identified, but measures must be taken to identify or prevent multiple submission of any sections. If it is done at the end of the questionnaire, it will be necessary to pass information entered by participants up to a given point in the questionnaire from page to page.
  3. As participants progress through the questionnaire, they may wish to return to a previous page to review and change answers. Unless measures are taken to ensure that the data they have already entered is still available when they do this, it is important to inform them that answers already entered may be no longer available if they go back. It may also be important to add instructions not to go back through a questionnaire if each page is to be submitted individually, or to add validation routines preventing submission a second time.


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[Open/close heading]There is a good chance that my survey group will be using old computers. Is there anything I should consider?

There are a number of measures that can be taken to ensure that a questionnaire is suitable for older browsers and equipment. These include maintaining a straightforward design, avoiding the use of third-party plug-ins such as Macromedia Flash, ensuring the questionnaire is designed for accessibility (see question below) and validating the HTML and or CSS used to create it. However differences in aspects such as the size and appearance of form elements and tables may remain when viewed on different systems.

It is thus good practice to test pages on as many different browsers and systems as possible, and as an absolute minimum to install the latest versions of the three most popular browsers on your desktop and use these to test. Friends and acquaintances with different systems (e.g. AppleMacs or PCs) and older versions of browsers can also be called on to test for any problems. Where design problems are found in particular systems and browsers, an attempt can then be made to change the design to best accommodate them.

It is also possible to collect information about the user's computer and browser alongside the data from the questionnaire (see the 'Gathering information about participants' section of this 'Technical guide' module). This can allow an overview of the technologies available to respondents to be gained. If it becomes clear, for example, that older or less common browsers are being used to access the questionnaire, it can be tested on these browsers and redesigned if necessary.

It is also a good idea to test the questionnaire on different screen size settings to ensure that questions are visible in their entirety and do not require scrolling, to use web-safe colours which will display consistently on different monitors and to use common fonts and 'font-families' to ensure that the fonts used will display consistently on different systems.

See the information on consistency in the 'Key design issues' section of the 'Technical guide' module for further information.


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[Open/close heading]How can I make sure my questionnaire can be used by participants with disabilities?

It is important to design pages to be as accessible as possible to members of the target group who may have disabilities. There are a number of simple steps that can be taken to increase the accessibility of an online questionnaire and its associated web pages. These can ensure that the contents are accessible to users with a range of user-agents including text-only and screen reading browsers and other assistive technologies.

Designing the site to be compliant with standards set out by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an important step in ensuring accessibility. The 'Resources' section of this 'Technical guide' module includes a link to W3C's validation tools which allow web pages to be checked for standards compliance. By uploading a page or entering the URL, the tools will run automated tests and report on any pieces of invalid markup in the pages.

It is also good practice to separate content from presentation in web pages by using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) to add design features (See the 'Introduction to CSS' section of this 'Technical guide' module). Although it should be remembered that this may lead to increased inconsistencies in display on older browsers, this allows participants to control how the site should be presented. They can override style information to allow presentational features such as text size, font, colour and layout to be changed according to need.

Beyond this, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines (WAI) includes a wide range of measures which should be taken to ensure that a website is accessible ([External Link - opens in a new window]http://www.w3.org/ WAI/intro/wcag.php). The guidelines divide these measures into Priority 1, 2 or 3 according to how essential they are to accessibility. Some key measures that should be taken for accessibility are shown in the 'Key design issues' section of this 'Technical guide' module.


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[Open/close heading]Can I create something that people can fill in on TVs, mobile phones?

It should be possible to access a well-designed questionnaire on a wide range of web-enabled devices including TVs, mobile phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). By designing for accessibility and separating content from presentation (see question above), you will be able to make sure that the pages are as accessible as possible to devices such as these as well as to text-only and screen-reading browsers and other assistive technologies.


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