By Shelley Kimball, Ph.D.
I know you’ve seen them – online requests to take a survey. And I know they can get annoying.
I build surveys, and I want tell you how valuable it is when you take the time to participate.
I’m the research director for the Military Family Advisory Network, a nonprofit organization that focuses on finding the right support programming for military families. And (full-disclosure), I have a survey out in the field now that has been making the rounds.
I want to take you behind the scenes of building a survey like this one so you can understand why your input is what makes it or breaks it.
Why do we do it?
As a researcher, my goal is always to find a way to pull together lots of voices to see if I can use them to do some good. At MFAN, we are asking for help understanding military families’ experiences with support programs – what’s great, what’s missing, what do you wish the decision-makers knew?
I think many of us have had that experience where we think we are all alone, but then we get that friend or acquaintance who feels the same way about something, and suddenly we are infinitely stronger. We can take on more because we have each other, and we have someone who just understands.
Think of a survey like that. We are all coming together to see where we have those moments, so we can explain our lives with even bigger voices. Those of us who research our the military family community are trying to understand you so that we can find ways to make military life easier.
In our case, MFAN is a group of conveners. We are not here to reinvent the wheel. We want to figure out what support programs are really working, and then find ways to tell everyone about them. We can’t do that without input from our community.
When we hear what you have to say, we get to work. If we find a gap in coverage, then we will look for a program to fill it, or we will invent one. Our last survey showed us that people really wanted financial assistance and advice, so we built MilCents, an online financial learning platform that is actually fun.
So in the months before we even put a survey out, we test the questions on people just like you to make sure we are asking the right things in a way that makes sense. (You’d be amazed at how long we agonize over how to phrase something.)
Next comes the actual building. It’s like a system of steps, but made for the individual person who takes it.
I know you don’t have a lot of time to spare. It’s a personal goal of mine to be as efficient as possible when asking questions. I built our survey like a choose-your-own adventure to personalize it to your experiences. You aren’t retiring soon? I’ll skip that section for you. You don’t have kids? We won’t ask you about them. You don’t identify as LGBTQ? Those questions disappear. But if you do identify in those ways, the questions appear and we are ready to listen. (And the average is about 10 minutes to complete the whole thing.)
When all is said and done, the real work begins. We read every answer to every question. (Last time we did this, that was 17,000 unique answers to questions.) We pore over them to make sense of what all of you want us to know.
Putting all of our thoughts together makes a louder voice. Instead of one experience, we can explain thousands of them. Those in charge of the decisions that affect us will take notice.
Let me help you make sure that you are spending your valuable time and effort on real research. Some tips on survey taking:
- Find out who built it and why: Anyone who puts a survey out should be up front about who they are and what they are doing with the information. You need to know where your information is going and how someone is using it.
- Figure out if your information is kept confidential: How much of your identifying information is tied to your responses? I try to work with as little demographic information as I can so that I can’t tell who you are.
- Pay attention to whether it is reputable research: Throwing together a quiz is different from survey research. In my case, I took a lot of classes in my graduate work to make sure I am doing this properly. I’ve been a researcher for 17 years now, and I am constantly learning new ways to be effective.
- Sign up to get the results: You should be able to ask for the final product whether that is access to a website or a full-blown report. (We will have both).
I hope you’ll take our survey, which ends November 12. Your input really does matter. In 10 (or so) minutes you can help us make lasting difference for military families.
Shelley Kimball is a Coast Guard spouse who teaches at The George Washington University and the University of Florida. She specializes in qualitative research.