A wonderful new tool for our online research surveys

SPRU have found a new tool to manage research surveys (and organise Christmas parties too!) Rachel McAllister tells us more...


The Social Policy Research Unit sends out a lot of surveys. In the past these were on paper, and this can still be the preferred medium, depending on the target audience. More often now we will want to provide people with an online survey to fill in. We had used Survey Monkey and Jotform in the past, until a particular need and an international collaboration brought us to Qualtrics.

Back in 2013 we were working with colleagues in Melbourne Australia to deliver a tool to measure stress in people who worked in paediatric oncology units. It was a very carefully produced scientific measure and part of it needed to be in a particular format; a central column of statements flanked on either side by a scale of frequency and a scale of stress. None of the online survey systems that we had access to could reproduce this format until we found Qualtrics, which had a great amount of flexibility in its design interface. Another great benefit is that all the data warehousing for Qualtrics is in Ireland and so within the European Economic Area.  This is an important requirement of many of our research funders and ethics committees.


Our collaborator in Australia suggested Qualtrics to us as they used it and knew its capabilities. Alongside this flexibility of design, it was very easy to learn how to use it. Our initial training session caused a real buzz of excitement amongst the researchers in the Unit as they grasped the possibilities that it provided for future survey work. As you use it, and the further into it you explore, it tends to reveal ever greater abilities, whilst remaining a very quick and easy way to do a plain, simple form such as "Who wants what food for the staff Christmas meal?".

We found it such a good tool that we invested in a license to cover the whole SPRU staff. It has been used to survey NHS providers about their services for people with dementia, social services practitioners about their reablement services, local authorities about how they allocate services to support carers, as well as to register people for conferences and events. One very useful facet is that it allows you to share the survey that you are creating with anyone (they do not need to have an account) which is excellent for collaborative working with other research institutions. As well as very sophisticated piping, looping, and merging functions within surveys it also allows you to distribute individual surveys to named people within panels of survey recipients. Responses are tracked and notifications sent to your email inbox if required. There are options to export the survey results into CSV, SPSS, Fixed Field Text, XML, HTML and zipped files which helps enormously with the further analysis of results.

We like it so much and saw how beneficial it could be to others on campus in their research endeavours that we took it to IT Services to request that the license be shared campus-wide. I advertised a demonstration of Qualtrics around campus, via all the IT forums, YorkExtra and emailing likely departments to ascertain interest. The demonstration could either be attended in person or via desktop hook-up to the online conferencing software that the presenter in the USA was using. There followed a useful discussion of the pros and cons of central financing of the software. Following up on the interest expressed at the demonstration, we managed to get buy in from about twelve departments. IT Services funded the rest of the license and Qualtrics became a tool for everyone on campus.
Now it is used a lot by students in departments and its ability to handle quite sophisticated requirements fairly easily has meant a lot less support is required from staff. There is a comprehensive help facility available to all users, which benefits staff who have traditionally supported students with this activity. Central University support departments were also keen to use it, with their need to monitor various aspects of student life or support services. It has found a niche throughout the University.

We at SPRU are delighted that for a smaller contribution we can retain this most useful tool. We wouldn't be without it!

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