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The subtle art of surveying: a guide

By Eva Abboudy

Surveying is an under-appreciated art that requires precision, self-control and occasionally nerves. Practices also helps, and in this blog I’m going to share with you some tips I picked up while interviewing people for Youth4Governance’s perception study on the Lebanese public administration. We surveyed people across Lebanon, learning from our mistakes and how to handle different situations. With these tips, you’ll surely find each field research day easier than the one before!

The survey

The survey itself was the most important part of our fieldwork. As such, it was important to know how to prepare the perfect survey.

What to avoid

  • Long and complex surveys, especially those conducted face-to-face and outdoors, are likely to bore respondents and generate less reliable data. Recent studies have shown that respondents’ attention span is as short as just eight seconds. On the first day of the field research, we were not yet familiar with the questions and it took us almost 25 minutes to complete each survey. Most respondents got bored, and started answering quickly, giving random answers to finish the survey sooner. That’s why experts recommend keeping surveys to a maximum of 15 minutes. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the survey before interviewing people.
  • Double-barreled questions and complex questions often confuse respondents, potentially leading to inaccuracies in the survey results.
  • Biased and leading questions are less likely to get you real answers. The solution is to keep questions neutral, including the response options in multiple-choice questions. Also be sure to include a full range of options in the multiple-choice questions. For example, one might think it impossible that anybody has an “excellent relationship” with the Lebanese public administration, but this option should still be available.

What to do

  • Face-to-face surveys are more advisable than remote surveys. Speaking face-to-face with someone lets you capture qualitative and quantitative findings, and it is more likely the respondents will stay engaged throughout the whole process.
  • Use the same language as respondents to make it easier for them to express their opinions and clarify what they are saying. This helps to avoid misunderstandings. Ahead of our field deployments, our supervisors emphasized the importance of using only Arabic when interviewing people. As researchers Mandy Sha and Tim Gabel note, the language surveyors use “can affect every stage of the response formation process, and different mechanisms may simultaneously play a role at each step.”

How to conduct a survey face-to-face? 

Conducting face-to-face surveys can be very challenging, particularly because interviewers can unconsciously influence respondents’ answers and therefore undermine data quality.

Our supervisors gave us clear instructions on how to handle face-to-face surveys perfectly. For example, it’s important for surveyors not to express their own opinions during the survey, even if respondents ask them questions or try to draw reactions from them on their answers. The survey must also always be read as it is, without adding or changing anything, and it’s good practice to read every answer back to respondents, and repeat again if needed. “Repeat answers as much as needed, but never interpret a silence, a smile, or even different answers,” our supervisor warned us.

This all sounds great, but in the field, we quickly found out how hard it is to put this theory into practice consistently. Here are some tips we learned by ourselves to make it easier. 


The conditions we were working in necessitated self-control. For instance, we often had to repeat the same questions over and over, with the sun beating down on us in the street. We also had to control our reactions, even when we agreed or disagreed with the respondents’ answers. In addition, some respondents were very rude to us, while others were very talkative, meaning we had to be professional and manage our time effectively. Despite the inconveniences, the self-control was worth it: we learnt how to listen carefully, without judging others.

Identify the target

This was among the most crucial elements of the mission. We had to survey citizens at random on the streets, as well as civil servants in their offices, and the optimal approach was different for both.

When it comes to interviewing people in public spaces, it is hard to predict how they will react to a stranger requesting to interview them. Some fear strangers, others are too busy either jogging or talking on their phones. However, there is an art to picking the right respondent, and to persuading them to participate in the survey. It’s important to pick someone who is not busy or in a rush, so your target should be either chilling, drinking her coffee, or doing some other passive activity (like fishing or waiting in line for gasoline).

It was easier to interview employees in their offices than people in the street. But we can’t ignore the fact that some employees can be overloaded, or engaged in work that requires focus. That’s why you should pick the right office, and the right time to initiate the talk. To do so, you can ask for any supervisor’s help, or simply avoid crowded offices.

How to initiate the conversation and keep it going

“The interviewer is arguably one of the most important factors in persuading respondents to participate in a face-to-face interview,” writes Professor Annette Jackle of Essex University. When surveying, communication is not only about talking and presenting the project as it is to a stranger. To convince someone to take part in your survey, you must attract them. How? This can be done with a smile, with a kind approach, or by simply asking them if they want to take part in your research, and explaining the purpose behind it.

Once you get the stranger’s attention, it’s important not to lose it. You can do this by changing your intonation, maintaining eye contact, being passionate about what you’re doing and showing that you are interested in what they are saying. Thank them for the time they are spending with you and express how grateful you are for their input.

How to handle rejection or bad interactions

Facing rejection is a part of the process. Some respondents may not have the time or the patience to fill the survey. As a surveyor, this should not impact your mood. Keep calm, breathe in and search for your next target!