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Paper and Web Survey Methods Compared

Compare Online Surveys and Offline Paper Surveys

Often, people try to create virtual clones of existing paper survey instruments with eSurveysPro. While there are huge advantages in starting off with an existing instrument, it is very important to understand the differences between these methods. Read on for valuable information on usability, response rates, question structure and instrument bias.


One of the most obvious differences between paper and web surveys is how the survey is presented to the audience. Most printed surveys are designed to work on one or more pages that are printed at an incredibly high resolution compared with what we see on our computer screens. Not only can you fit more information on one piece of paper than on a comparably sized monitor, the audience always sees the paper version in the same size. With web surveys, though, people use widely different screen resolutions, font sizes and monitor sizes. Some people run their web browsers full screen, others in a relatively small window. This means that your survey will look different to different readers.

In general paper surveys are designed to take advantage of all the real estate on the paper. A question can run the entire width of the page without any problems. Web surveys have different requirements, though. While most users are relatively comfortable scrolling a screen up and down, they are usually resistant to scrolling a screen right and left. Matrix questions are the easiest to make too wide for a good survey. In general you want your matrix questions to have response option columns that are very thin. Numbers in a rating scale work very well, as well as keeping the number of response options very low.

The best way to test your survey for visibility is to change your monitor resolution temporarily to a very low setting (640x480 or 800x600). This will give you an idea of what many of your users will see.

Another issue is that of aesthetics. Most paper surveys are on plain white paper and use a very easy to read font. While it is easy to create a web survey with a deep purple background, bright yellow text and flashing graphics, it is not a good idea if you are interested in collecting valid survey data. A survey with a white background and a Verdana, Arial or Helvetica font works best. Subtle background graphics can add a professional tone to your survey. Graphics are very easy to insert into eSurveysPro surveys - just make sure that your graphics have a specific purpose. Many users implement graphics effectively by adding logos, inserting graphics to match their web site or separating sections of their surveys using an image. Unless it serves a purpose, though, avoid placing graphics into your survey just because you can.

Speed and Response Rates

Very often first time users are shocked by how quickly the results start pouring in. Depending on the audience, the purpose of the survey and the notification method used, responses can start to accumulate in minutes - complete surveys can be conducted in a few days. On the other hand, paper-based surveys take from several weeks to several months to distribute, collect and encode for analysis.

This is an important difference to recognize because it can change your survey objectives. Many people who have conducted paper-based surveys previously ask as many questions as they think their users will tolerate. Because web-based surveys are more economical and provide data so much faster, a better approach is to conduct much briefer web surveys more often. Not only does this approach keep from burdening your survey audience, the data you collect with subsequent surveys is more timely.

Structuring Questions

Web surveys provide better the control surfaces than do paper surveys. While radio buttons (select one) and check boxes (check all that apply) are common to both, web surveys can also take advantage of pull down lists. This compact form of option selection allows you to present a very large number of responses to the user on only one line of the screen. Very often a survey is laid out based on the medium it will use; simply taking the question styles from a paper survey doesn't leverage the advantages that web surveys offer.

Asking people to provide text based subjective feedback is another area where web surveys have a distinct advantage. Getting people to write in text is difficult because most people do not want to take the time. In addition, collection of that type of data is highly error-prone.

In web surveys it is very easy to add multiple verbose text areas that the user can fill in. Data entry accuracy is very high, subject to misspellings and mistakes that the user may make. One huge advantage is when you analyze your survey results. Using the proper filtering ("Only show me the people that said they would purchase again"), you can read through a group of comments from people that answered a question a specific way, providing a targeted view of subjective feedback.

Understanding Instrument Bias

All surveys introduce bias. Telephone surveys can be biased by the tone and demeanor of the person asking the questions - they also limit your audience to people that have phones. Paper surveys introduce different types of bias - at a minimum the audience must be able to read and write, making surveys about literacy levels rather useless. Web surveys require respondents that are literate, have at least basic computer skills and access to the Internet. This means that you need to qualify any results you get in your web survey with that information.

Certain surveys are not affected as much by the instrument bias a web survey introduces. If you are looking to determine the job satisfaction of high technology workers, the bias has a very minimal impact. Getting feedback from employees on a benefit package can have a slightly higher bias if not all employees have computer access. However, trying to determine whether or not the United States should invade Afghanistan would be highly biased because the only opinions you could register would be computer literate people with Internet access that you are able to reach. Any results from that type of survey would need to be qualified.

The good news is that the number of people with Internet access in the United States and most modern countries is quickly approaching a representative cross sampling of those societies. Based on a recent NetRatings study, 162.5 million Americans have Internet access at home, while 35 million Americans have access at work.

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