Storytelling is not just for reporting: How to ‘storify’ your survey

Mar 8, 2022 |4 min read

A few months ago, I enrolled in several online panels and started taking surveys to better understand the experience, we market researchers, provide to panelists. After having participated for a few months now, I have taken an unhealthy number of surveys and my honest observation is this: most surveys are not great.

They are written in a dry, transactional way and offer little incentive or encouragement to continue. Even for a survey enthusiast like myself, finishing them required a fair amount of teeth-gritting tenacity. And though I was able to detect a trendy element of gamification in some surveys, the overall look and feel of the experience have done a poor job of evolving with the times.

Occasionally, however, I have the pleasure of discovering a beautiful survey. In most cases, the beautiful ones are built using an up-and-coming, DIY platform. The designs are clean, the colors are soothing, and the illustrations and graphic elements make the experience more engaging. The screen transitions are smooth and even the shading of the radio buttons is more appealing. I am smiling just thinking about it. (You’re totally smiling too. 😊)

Reflecting on what I learned from experiencing both the dry and the beautiful, I asked myself, “What is it that has the power to make surveys more consumable and less tiresome?” It has to be more than just pleasing radio-button shading and appealing colors. And after looking beyond the low-level design details, I started to think about the bigger picture: Could the answer be “storytelling”? The demand for storytelling in reports has exploded in recent years and much innovation in market research has been dedicated to data analysis and visualization platforms. But who said that just the reports should be story-driven? Why can’t we storify our surveys too?


'Storify' your survey

As inhabitants of an attention economy where human attention is a finite resource, it can be hard to seize and maintain someone’s focus. People are bombarded with countless requests for their attention and most of those are, arguably, more interesting than a survey.

In a world where demand for survey participants far exceeds supply, it is critical for surveys to be eye-catching from the start, to grab a participant’s attention, and to sustain their engagement through the end so as to minimize drop-outs. To address all of these challenges, I suggest a storybook approach.

What makes a good storybook? Good storybooks have a unique book cover, well laid out pages, inspirational illustrations, a writing style adapted to the audience, and an intuitive table of contents that orients the reader. When designing a survey, the same principles apply.

1. Include an enticing landing page

Because, as it turns out, we do judge a book by its cover. As a survey participant, I will admit that an appealing landing page encourages me to continue because I have this first clue that it won’t be an excruciating experience. It’s warm and inviting and makes me feel welcome.

2. Improve the user experience (UX)

In all fairness, the traditional survey software companies do not make it easy to improve the UX without a very competent programmer and a lot of extra time on your hands. Though there are limits to what you can reasonably expect to achieve, small design improvements go a long way. Don’t be afraid of white space.

3. Use illustrations

What adventures do you have in store for your readers? Is your survey about a shopper journey? Illustrate it with icons and interesting visuals that are both entertaining and informative. If a respondent can visualize where they are going, they can visualize reaching the end.

4. Adopt a friendly, conversational tone

Writing has become less formal and more conversational over the years. In fact, communication in general has become shorter and shorter. This is not simply because of the media, but because we seem to absorb smaller pieces of information better. And remember that most participants will not read every word, so – like so many other things in life – less is more.

5. Offer a sense of progression.

How would you feel as a reader if you had no idea how many chapters were in the book you’re reading, or how close you were to the end? Skip logic makes progress bars notoriously inaccurate, but there are creative ways to still give participants a sense of “you are here” and show them what’s ahead, and how much further they have to go.

Let’s go back to storytelling

Humans have loved stories for millennia. They help us connect with our audiences and get our point across in a way that engages and entertains. In fact, storytelling already plays a large role in market research and certainly in reporting. Storifying our surveys not only elevates the user experience, but also helps us compete for – and win! – participants’ attention.