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How to design and use free online surveys

This short guide to using free online surveys will give you some useful tips on how to choose an online survey-provider and how to get started.



An online survey is a great way to collect feedback from your organisation’s service-users or other stakeholders. However, deciding which survey-provider to use and designing a good survey can still prove quite challenging. This guide will help you to:

  • decide whether to use an online survey for collecting the information you want
  • find out more about what the different free survey-providers offer
  • choose a survey-provider which will suit your needs
  • understand more about designing online surveys.

When to use an online survey

Online surveys have a number of advantages over other methods of collecting information. In particular, they are:

  • Cheap – there are no printing or postage costs.
  • Flexible – you can use questions that have drop-down menus, or in some cases, you can direct people to specific questions depending on the answers they give.
  • Quick – you can start getting responses to your survey within minutes and most people respond within two or three days of being asked to complete a survey.
  • Cost-effective – since respondents enter their answers directly into the survey, this saves you time and money in entering data yourself and also makes analysis quicker and easier.

However, online surveys have some disadvantages which you should consider when deciding whether to use an online survey:

  • They rely on your respondents having access to the internet which may limit the response you get from some groups of people and potentially bias your results.
  • They can sometimes be affected by technical problems e.g. computers crashing or screens being slow to load.
  • They may be difficult for some people to complete e.g. people with visual impairment or people who have difficulty using a mouse or keyboard.

In addition, research suggests that average response-rates to online surveys range from 10% to 30% so be realistic in your expectations of the response you may get from your own online survey.


Choosing a free online survey-provider

A quick search on the internet will bring up details of numerous companies who provide free online surveys. But these free surveys come with some limitations, particularly in terms of:

  • the number of surveys you can create
  • the number of questions you can ask on each survey
  • the number of responses you can collect
  • or the ways in which you can control how people fill in your survey.

For example, some will allow you to set up ‘skip-logic’ (where respondents are taken to specific questions depending on their answers to a question) whilst others will allow you to control what happens once respondents have completed the survey. Most free surveys will also put their own logo or branding on each screen of the survey you create.

We have produced a comparison chart (pdf, 904KB) which provides information on 13 commonly-used free online surveys. Apart from considering what features each one offers, think about what your survey will look like and how you will be able to access the data collected. It’s particularly important to think about:

  • how many questions you want your survey to cover
  • how much control you want over the look of your survey
  • how long you need to be able to access the responses in your survey
  • whether you need to be able to download these to your own computer.

Use our comparison chart to help you select two or three of the survey-providers that you like best and spend a bit of time creating test surveys so that you can see how each one functions. Have a go at writing a few questions, filling out your test survey and looking at how you can then view and use the data collected. This will help you decide which one best fits your requirements.


How to get started

Once you have chosen a survey-provider, you simply register for the service and are then ready to start creating your surveys. However before you start, it can be useful to spend some time mapping out your survey on paper (particularly if you are planning to use skip-logic).

Some survey-providers supply templates (i.e. a pre-designed survey) that you can adapt to create your own survey. Or you can choose to create your own survey by selecting a theme (background colour, font style etc.) and defining your own questions and answer choices as you go along.


Different question types

1. An open question with a text box i.e. where respondents can write whatever they like. For example:

How has our service helped you over the last year?

2. A question with multiple answer-choices i.e. where respondents select one or more options from a list that you present to them. For example:

Please tell us which of the following services you have used in the last six months:
- Weekly support group
- Online forum
- Information leaflet

3. A matrix of multiple responses i.e. where respondents can select only one answer in each row. For example:

Did our project help you....

- cope better with your situation? yes/no/not sure
- make new friends? yes/no/not sure
- feel more confident? yes/no/not sure

4. A scaled question i.e. where respondents select one option from a scale. For example:

On a scale of 1-5 where 1 = not at all and 5 = very, how helpful were the following services….

- weekly support group
- online forum
- information leaflets


Using standard data sets

Find out about best practice or standard data sets for certain types of questions. This can save you time and ensure that you are creating a robust survey.

For example, look for best practice about how you ask about gender or ask about ethnicity from experts who researched these areas. NCVO's almanac is also useful if you are looking for breakdowns of sector data such as charity size or UK regions.


Designing your survey

It may seem obvious but the design of your survey is really important in terms of making people feel inclined to complete your survey, guiding them through it and ensuring they give you the information you need to collect. Here are our ten top tips to help you design your online survey:

1. First of all, people should see a clear, introductory screen, telling them who the survey is from, what it’s about and roughly how long it will take to complete. Keep this to a few sentences or you will put people off before they’ve even started!

2. Make sure your survey is accessible and easy to read (particularly by people who are visually impaired). So make sure you have a good contrast between the font colour and the background and use a large-enough font size. It is a good idea to have enough spacing between questions as it makes it easier for people to read them. You might also want to think about breaking up your questions over a few screens rather than having them all on one long screen.

It is important to check whether the survey-provider you are using has complied with disability legislation as this now covers how accessible websites are to people with disabilities.

3. Avoid cluttering up your screens with too many questions or unnecessary numbering. This is particularly important in terms of keeping it accessible for people who find online surveys difficult. Try to keep the design simple by using no more than two different font types and avoid using underline or capitals to emphasise certain words – use bold print instead.

4. Write short, clear questions with simple instructions (where needed) and appropriate response-options. This is particularly important with multiple-response questions where you need to be clear whether you want people to be able to select lots of responses or just one.

Adding a comment box is also useful as it prevents respondents getting frustrated if they can’t say what they want to say. And do give your respondents options such as ‘don’t know’ or ‘not sure’ as otherwise they may select responses that are not appropriate or relevant to them.

5. Order your questions in a logical way. Group similar questions together. Some people suggest it is best to place important ones towards the beginning of the survey and put profile questions (such as age, gender, location, etc.) at the end.

6. Keep your survey focused. Resist the urge to ask questions that don't directly relate to the purpose of the survey or are just ‘nice to know’.

7. Make sure your survey is user-friendly. Your respondents may lose interest if you ask them too many open questions so try to provide tick boxes wherever possible with text-boxes for additional comments. Spend some time thinking about the different people who will complete your survey and make sure the questions and answer-options will be appropriate to them.

Be especially careful with ‘required answers’ (where respondents are forced to answer a question before they can move to the next question) as these can lead to respondents abandoning your survey if they don’t want to answer that question.

Make it clear how long the survey is especially if your survey goes onto multiple pages - eg say this is page 1 of 4. 

8. Thank respondents for their participation at the end of your survey. You may also want to think about whether you are going to share the results of the survey with them in which case you may want to add a couple of sentences to your thank-you screen.

9. Remember to comply with Data Protection legislation. To comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, your survey’s introduction must include the name of the organisation conducting the survey and how the data will be handled (i.e. confidential, personally identifiable for database building or direct marketing, etc.

10. Check your survey will give you usable information. It’s a good idea to test it out yourself and ask other people to do so too. It’s often surprising how questions that seemed completely clear and logical when you wrote them don’t always work so well when you ask people to answer them!


Launching your survey

Once you are ready to send out your survey, here are our top tips to help you get a good response:

1. Draft some introductory text (that will go in the email or other announcement of your survey) which explains what the survey is about, why people have been asked to fill it in, how long it will take and how the information will be used.

2. Consider offering an incentive which can help boost your response rate. For example, you might want to offer an opportunity for people to enter their details for a prize draw. There are rules about survey incentives available from the Market Research Society (pdf, 147KB).

3. Decide how long to leave your survey open for. Generally, it’s a good idea to leave it open for a minimum of one week although it doesn’t need to remain open for much longer than a couple of weeks. People tend to fill in online surveys soon after they receive the request – or not at all! A reminder can be helpful in boosting your response-rate but don’t send out more than one.

4. Decide how you want people to complete your survey. For example, do you want to give them the option to exit the survey and go back to it later or do you want respondents to be able to complete your survey only once?

5. Make sure it goes to the right people. It’s important that your survey reaches the people you intended, otherwise this could distort your results.

6. Remember to close your survey on the day you decided on otherwise you may get late responses trickling in and affecting your findings.


Using your survey data

Finally, you will want to think about how to make use of the information collected by your survey. Most survey-sites offer some way of seeing a summary of the results – and in some cases, you can share these with other people or even download them. You may be able to filter your results so that you can look at how particular groups of respondents answered the survey. However, be careful how you analyse questions that were not answered by all the respondents as this can affect your results.


Sharing your findings

And when you have finalised your findings, remember to put a summary up on your website or somewhere where your respondents will be able to see it. It is important that people feel that the time spent giving you their views was worthwhile.

Further information


Page last edited May 13, 2019 History

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