I first used Google forms to set up the Indies Unlimited 2015 Self-Published Production Process Survey. If you’ve self-published at least one book and haven’t taken that survey yet, it’s not too late. You have until February 23, 2015. Go do that now. We’ll wait.
Welcome back. Thanks for doing that.
If you have a website, chances are at some point you have or will want to conduct a survey of some kind. (I’ve used one to get opinions from my readers on what they like and dislike about one of my sites.) Or maybe you want to set up a form to collect data of some kind. (Don’t forget, survey results are a favorite of the news media.)There are several alternatives for accomplishing this task, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Capabilities to Consider
1) How do you inform people the survey exists and how do they take it? The obvious way is a blog post with the survey or form embedded in the post so that anyone visiting your website can see it and you can promote it through social media or email. But some methods have the ability to send a link in an email to target certain people, essentially surveying only those you specifically invite.
2) Is there a way to identify the survey respondent? Some methods do this by requiring a sign-in using an email address or social media account (usually Twitter or Facebook). Others don’t. Some give both options. The preferred functionality is going to depend on your specific application. One factor is whether you’re asking questions with answers that could raise privacy concerns with respondents where you (and they) wouldn’t want to have identifying information available while in other instances, both of you would want to have contact information available.
3) Closely related to the above is whether there is a way to prevent the same person from responding more than once. All of the methods to do this have glaring holes. Those that require a sign-in make it harder, although if there are multiple ways to sign-in, a person could use both their Facebook and Twitter account. Those without a sign-in typically use identifiers that track the internet address and the device used, but have drawbacks; one of which is the possibility of two different people in the same household (or office) trying to respond from the same IP address.
4) Is there a cost? Many of the tools available for this functionality have a free version, but the free version may have limited capability. If you need functionality only included in the paid plan, but infrequently, some allow you to upgrade for a single month, cancelling prior to the next month, while others insist on a longer commitment.
5) Do the types of questions or input fields available meet your needs? For survey questions, examples of possible question types are multiple choice (choosing one answer from a list ), check boxes (picking all from a list that apply), and text boxes where the respondent writes their answer. The latter gives an unlimited number of possible answers, but also makes analysis of the results more difficult. Some give the possibility of an ‘other’ choice for multiple choice or check box questions with a place to fill in the specifics of the choice. Also, the ability to make answering a question required or optional is something to look for.
Data collection forms use many of the same types of entries as a survey might. An additional capability that might be available or needed is a way to validate some kinds of text entries. Often this is done by providing special versions of a text box with validation of what is entered. A couple examples of where this would be useful are a place to enter an email address or a website address (url), making sure they appear to be valid values, or allowing only numeric values, possibly within a specific range.
6) Is there a way to shuffle the order of questions or of possible answers to specific questions? In some surveys there might be a concern that past questions and their answers could influence the next answers given. This capability gives a way of randomizing the order of the questions to alleviate that concern. Likewise, the order of the choices given in a multiple choice question could have the same effect unless there is an option to randomize the order of the choices. Another possible capability that is closely related to this is the ability to modify the flow from one question to another depending on the answer to the current question. For example, if you asked “Do you ever use computer tools to evaluate and polish your writing?” if the answer is ‘No’ it is nice to be able to skip the next question or even several questions if they are asking for more detailed responses about what tools are used since we already know those questions wouldn’t pertain to this person.
7) Is there a way for people who have responded to come back to the site and change their answers or the data entered?
8) How are the survey answers saved or collected data stored? This might be in a database under control of the service or on the server for your website. Some services provide a way of scrubbing the data (removing duplicates or incomplete entries) and most have a way to download all responses in a file compatible with Excel or comparable application software.
9) Does the method make answers or data collected available to be seen by others? In some cases, you might want to allow someone who has answered a survey (maybe a single question poll) to see the results of voting thus far after they’ve given their answer. In other cases, you may want to keep the data private.
Possible Survey and Data Collection Tools and Services
One method I’ve used to conduct a survey is Rafflecopter. This will only work in conjunction with some kind of giveaway (this service’s forte), with each survey question answered working as an entry to a raffle. I’ve used this method twice for voting in my blog’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards. The main disadvantages are you’re limited to the kind of questions you can ask and the survey capability isn’t part of Rafflecopter’s free service, instead requiring a paid upgrade. (You can upgrade for only a month during your survey, if you need this capability, but infrequently.) Rafflecopter requires participants to log in.
Another method I’ve used is Survey Monkey. This service has a lot of capabilities. However, their free plan is very limited (only 10 questions in a survey which is limited to 100 people responding). Paid plans (there are several) remove the limitations and ramp up functionality, but are on the expensive side. Survey Monkey does not require a log-in for participants.
If you have a WordPress-based blog or website, there are multiple plug-ins available for this type of task. Some, like the one Indies Unlimited uses each week for voting in the Flash Fiction contest, are good for a single question poll, but are limited to that question, plus they show voters the current results. There are other plug-ins with robust capabilities for creating forms and surveys, but most require an investment or, if a free version is available, it has limited capability.
Depending on need, there might be a better way to accomplish some kinds of data collection that is geared to your specific requirement. For example, if what you want to accomplish is capturing email addresses to subscribe to a newsletter, if you are already using one of the services that assist with this, maybe Mail Chimp, you should see what they have available. The HTML code or blog widgets they provide may better suit your purposes and will be quicker than building something from scratch.
A Closer Look at Google Forms
Here I’ll give a quick rundown on the capability of Google Forms, following the numbered list above.
1) Google Forms has the capability of embedding a survey in a website page or blog post. You also have the option of sending a link to the form via email or posting on various social media sites to invite people to fill out the form or survey. (This second option is done entirely under Google’s control, so you don’t have to have your own website to use this approach.)
2) You can require a sign-in or not. If you don’t, it will help alleviate privacy concerns of respondents. If you do, it appears Google doesn’t provide you with that information, so if it is needed you’d have to explicitly ask for an email address or other contact information in your survey or form.
3) If you require a sign-in, you have the option of limiting responses to one time per account or allowing multiple responses. The downside to this is that the respondent must have a Google account. Although a Google account is used for many services including Blogger, Gmail, YouTube, GooglePlus, and the Google Play store (used by almost anyone with an Android device), not everyone has one and some may not want to create one.
4) I searched for any cost associated with its use. There is a limit to the amount of disk space you can use (1 GB is free) before you’ll need to upgrade to a paid account. As long as you don’t exceed this limit, it appears to be completely free. There are add-ons that are like plug-ins in the WordPress world, to add additional specialized capability to your forms. Of those listed, they all explicitly say they are free, but this leads me to believe the possibility of charging for an add-on has at least been considered. Some of these add-ons may also have a paid version with more capability than the basic version.
5) Google Forms has the most common question types (multiple choice using buttons or a drop down menu as well as check boxes). It also has two types of text fields: the main difference being the amount of space visible for entry. It allows a question or field to be defined as required or optional. Multiple choice and check box types have the ‘other’ option to allow entry of an answer not in the list of choices. It has some limited capability to validate text fields (for example, to insure they are numeric, if that is needed).
6) The option of shuffling the order of questions on a survey or randomizing the order of potential answers to a multiple choice question is provided in Google Forms. It also provides a way to control the flow of questions, skipping questions based on answering another question with a specific choice.
7) If your form or survey is set up to require a sign-in, Google Forms gives you the option to allow a person to return and modify their answers or input.
8) Survey answers are saved under Google’s control in the form of a spreadsheet. You have an option to save this file to your own computer in a variety of formats including an Excel spreadsheet.
9) The option to show a summarized version of answers to those who have filled out a form or survey is available, but optional.
As you can see, Google Forms compares well to the other options available. A reminder that, to see it in action and get a feel for its capabilities, if you’ve self-published at least one book you can experience it yourself while you fill out our survey linked at the top of this post. Look for the future post with a tutorial showing you how to put this tool to work for you.