Museums As Progress (MAP) is a firm that helps cultural organizations define their strategic purpose, prioritize community goals, and identify opportunities to support those goals through progress-space research. In November of 2023 they asked me to join their Research Office Hours to bring Corona’s expertise and chat with MAP community members about writing and executing better surveys. Below you will find some themes that emerged from our conversation.

Start with clearly defined research goals

Unfortunately, organizations often take on the process of executing a survey before they have clearly defined strategic goals. These kinds of box-checking exercises can end up consuming valuable resources without providing the right information to inform future operations.

Good research starts with clearly defined research questions. Knowing what key decisions need to be made and/or what audience information is missing from your available data is critical to guiding the research process. Establishing these research questions might lead you to first pursue exploratory qualitative research like interviews or focus groups if you realize you don’t know enough about your audience to write an effective survey.

Make surveys short and easy

Surveys can become bloated in the absence of clearly defined goals. Each question should be directly related to research goals and/or informing future operations. Without these goals, it is easy to add questions or entire sections to surveys out of simple curiosity. We get it, seeing the data is fun! However, the longer questionnaires are, the less likely your audience is to complete the survey.

Another issue with long, detailed surveys is you may end up only hearing from a particular type of person who is extremely interested in the topic. While you might want to ask respondents about some state-of-the-art concept in museum curation or exhibits, it is unlikely that most respondents will have clearly defined opinions on these issues or even be able to comprehend these questions. The best survey data comes from questions that are asked in plain language, free of jargon, and reference tangible experiences.

Respect research participants

Organizations can become so focused on what they will learn from research that they forget data collection demands a lot of participants. One of the most important considerations on this front is to respect the time and effort of those participating in the research. To the previous point, keeping surveys short and easy is a great way to demonstrate that you respect the time of those generous enough to participate.

Additionally, be sure to explain why you are conducting this research, what will be done with the data, and, critically, what will not be done with the data. Ensure participants that their data will not be sold to third parties or used to market products and services. Let your participants know what future decisions will be made with this survey data.  Consider sharing the results of the survey with participants so they can see how the broader community feels about the issues at hand.

Finally, compensate participants for their time. Arts and cultural organizations often have small budgets for research. Given this, consider raffling off gift cards or special event/experience attendance to your organization. These steps will help you hear from a broader range of participants, improve representation in your data, and foster positive relationships with community members.