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Creating reader surveys with Google Forms

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Gathering data with Google Forms

Learning how to gather data is as important as learning how to interpret and use it. From simple surveys to detailed projects that gather information over long periods of time, there are plenty of tools available to help you quickly get what you need to know in a format that’s useable for analysis and storytelling.

One of the most commonly used tools for gathering data from readers is Google Forms. Google Forms captures information as a questionnaire, and saves it as a spreadsheet in your Google Drive.

It’s popular with journalists because it can be used on mobile phones as well as desktop PCs, and can be embedded into existing webpages to keep readers engaged.

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • How to create a Google Form
  • What the best types of questions are for Forms
  • How to publish a form within a page on your site

Create a new form

If you have access to Google Drive, then you can create Forms. Go to your Drive homepage and click on New>Form, or head to forms.google.com and click the red Plus symbol in the bottom right of the Forms overview, and you’ll be taken to a blank form

A newly created form.

There are templates set-up for commonly used Forms, such as contact pages or event booking sheets, but these are unlikely to fit the story you’re writing. The chances are you’ll want to start with a completely blank Form.

Forms can be accessed in several ways: you can include them at the bottom of an existing story to ask readers to submit more information, or as a separate page within your own site or on Google Drive.

In this example, we’re going to be working on a story about water shortages. We want to know how much water our readers use in their households per month, to compare that to national and international norms. To do this, we will create a form that asks them to submit some information from their monthly water bill.

Forms aren’t just for gathering data from readers of news websites, though. They are also useful for journalists collecting data in the field.

For example, you might be canvassing a community about living conditions in a peri-urban area, and have questions about household water usage you’ll be asking face-to-face. Rather than writing into a notebook and then digitising those replies later, you can capture data straight into a Form on your phone.

Craft the heading and intro

When you put together your Form, think about where it will be published. If you’re embedding a form onto a webpage, for example, you’ll want to keep the heading and introductory paragraph short. Readers will know why they are there already, and want to get straight into the answers.A lot of text at the top of the form may repeat what has been published above it.

If you’re planning to direct readers to a standalone page, however, you may need to include extra information to remind them why they are there.

You can add as many questions as you like to a Form, and have it run over multiple pages. Just remember, however, that the longer the Form is the higher the risk that a reader won’t complete it all. Keep Forms short and to the point whereever possible.

Types of question

Take a moment to make sure you’re asking the right question to get the information you need. You can edit a form once it’s been published, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to convince readers to resubmit replies to the same survey if you realise the answers aren’t being framed in a useful manner.

Google Forms can create questions that accept multiple choice answers, sentence length answers and long form answers.

You can set any answer to be optional or required using the slider in the bottom right hand corner of the question editor. You can also add images to question boxes if you wish, using the icon that appears when you hover over the title.

In the top right-hand corner, you’ll find menus to change the colour palette, preview your form or change global settings such as randomising the question order and turning it into a quiz.

Again, it’s best to keep things as clean and simple as possible. Images require bandwidth and time to load, and you want readers to focus on completing your form.

The vertical panel beside the question is used to create new questions (click the Plus icon) or insert straight lines or text to break the questions up.

Stick to multiple choice if you can

A simple form with one pulldown menu answer, and one set of multiple choice checkboxes.

When crafting questions, think about how you’re going to use the responses.

Sentence or paragraph answers might be great if you want a story that features lots of quotes, but it’s hard to quantify a group of statements in a quick and meaningful way. The chances are that you’ll want exact information such as “25% of respondents said they haven’t taken any measures to save water”. It’s easier to get that from a simple Yes/No multiple choice question than reading through a block of text to find the answer – especially if you hundreds or thousands of responses.

Even if you are primarily looking for material you can quote from, try to include a question that you’ll be able to express as a chart, ratio or percentage. So you might ask “Do you think the President is doing a good job?” as a simple Yes/No question, together with a more open “Why?” as a follow-up.

So in our example, it’s great to have some comments from people about what measures they’ve taken to save water, but we also want to know exactly how much water they use per month.

In this situation, it’s a good idea to limit the answers people can give with multiple choice options. For example, you might want to ask “how much water do you use per day?”, but leaving the answer as a text box will get replies in different formats. One person may reply “50” meaning fifty litres, another may reply “50l” or “50 litres”.

When analysing those answers, each of those three replies is unique and can’t easily be grouped together. If you receive hundreds of submissions, you’ll have to spend time cleaning your data before you can come up with the answers for your story.

Tip: If you want to gather numbers without using multiple choice options, click on the three dots next to Required and turn on Response validation. This will allow you to stipulate that the answer is a number. not text, limiting the format of responses to something that’s easier to use. Validation can also be used to validate email addresses, for example.

Be wary of gathering too much data

Creating forms is a great way to interact and learn more about your readers, but be wary about gathering too much data. For example, local privacy laws may place restrictions on how email addresses or telephone numbers are stored, and if you lose information about your readers you may be liable for damages incurred.

Just as important, readers may feel that a questionnaire is intrusive if it asks for a lot of personal information, and be reluctant to answer it.

Publish your form

Once you’ve completed your form, it’s time to publish it to the web. Click on the Send button, and a dialogue box will appear.

Copy and paste the embed HTML code into the HTML editor of your website.

The default option is to send a form via email, but clicking on the link or <> icons will give you better options you want. Click on the link and you can copy and paste the web address to link to the form as it appears on the screen now.

The code icon <> will generate a short script for embedding the form in any webpage, such as the one with your story. You can set the height and width to match the dimensions your site.

To embed a form in a responsive web page, change the width to 100% rather than the pixel value in the generated code when you paste it into your webpage.

Tip: If you want to stop readers from submitting data, for example after a closing date for submissions, click on Responses and turn off the slider marked Receiving responses. The form will still in your pages, with a note that it has been deactivated.

Now that you can create an publish forms, in part two of this lesson we’ll look at how to use the data that you’ve gathered.

An example of a Form embedded in a website, at the bottom of a story.