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Use Forms To Find Great Stories

[IMAGE] A screenshot of our survey tool, showing different questions asking about Donald Trump's speech.

Surveys and forms can be valuable tools in the journalistic toolbox.

If you use form tools well, they can help you engage with your audience to find new leads, information, skills, ideas. If you use them thoughtlessly, they can be a waste of your energy and a frustrating experience for everyone, including the people you want to respond to them.

Earlier in our work, we experimented with a product called Ask, a form-based tool. While Ask isn’t in active development any more, we learned a lot in our research about how to use forms effectively.

How to engage your audience

Before you use a form on a webpage, you need to ask some questions of yourself.

The first question: What are you looking to achieve from asking direct questions of your audience?

Are you looking for small anecdotes to add flavor to a story, or potential new directions for your reporting? How would each of these change the framing, timing, and promotion strategy of the request?

In her excellent engagement guide, Mónica Guzmán outlines four important questions to consider before creating solicitations for audience content. Here they are, with a few of our own adaptations:

1. Are you asking for something you will use? How will you use it?

You need to consider this before you begin. We’ve built a gallery function into Ask as an easy way to share the best contributions. There are many other ways you could use the responses. Do the people answering the questions know why you’re asking them at all?

2. Are you making it easy for people to contribute? How are you doing that?

You need to think about who will see the request, and where they will get it from. Does the survey/form look good in your design? Will you also allow people to submit responses through social media, and if so, how will you make sure you are legally allowed to use the content that comes from social media?

3. Are you rewarding your community for participating? How are you rewarding them? Will you tell them if you use their content?

By asking people to participate, you are asking them to commit (unpaid) time to helping you with your work. You ought to honor that by taking the time to sort through their responses, and by responding to meaningful contributions, thanking people for submitting, and sharing any links that contain their work.

By using the Gallery feature in Ask, you can easily share the best responses next to the form itself as they come in, as a way to reward participation and encourage more contributions. (This is what psychologists call Social Proof.)

4. Are you asking good questions? How do you know?

This is a hugely important area of focus. Humans are amazing and interesting and carry with them stories, knowledge, and experiences. But your good intentions don’t mean that you can’t alienate members of your audience with thoughtless phrasing.

In her talk “Everybody Hurts: Content For Kindness,” Sara Wachter-Boettcher talks about how the well-meaning design for a menstruation tracker proved hurtful to large sections of its audience by asking questions that assumed its users were hetrosexual. Simple questions can be jarring, such as questions that ask people to say what their gender is and only provide two options in response. You need to think about the diversity of experience and bodies of the people you are asking.

Ask good questions

Good phrasing is crucial to increasing the likelihood of good answers. According to SurveyMonkey’s well-thought-out study “Smart Survey Design,” there are a few important criteria to consider when writing questions:

  • Be Brief

Be succinct and clear. What is the shortest way to ask the question without losing its meaning?

  • Be Objective

Do your questions suggest there is a right and wrong answer? Can you randomize the order of your multiple choice answers? Can you ask people to answer on a scale instead of yes and no? A good question makes it easy for respondents to give you honest answers that you can use, without unconsciously guiding them to answers you would prefer.

  • Be Simple

Make your questions as accessible as possible to people of all backgrounds. Avoid jargon, double negatives, and insider language. Ask one thing at a time. Keep the form as short as possible.

  • Be Specific

Avoid words like “often” or “usually” — what you mean by often might be interpreted differently by the person answering the question. Make sure the wording is clear.

  • Avoid questions that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if you want to receive more

Using our Ask tool (now deprecated), Deseret News quickly realized that they weren’t getting the answers they need, and changed the questions. Read more about that here.

Here are more suggestions on framing good questions from The Art of Powerful Questions, adapted from Sally Ann Roth’s Public Conversations Project:

■ Is this question relevant to the real life and real work of the people who will be exploring it?
■ Is this a genuine question—a question to which I/we really don’t know the answer?
■ What “work” do I want this question to do? That is, what kind of conversation, meanings, and feelings do I imagine this question will evoke in those who will be exploring it?
■ Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking/ feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizable and relevant—and different enough to call forward a new response?
■ What assumptions or beliefs are embedded in the way this question is constructed?
■ Is this question likely to generate hope, imagination, engagement, creative action, and new possibilities or is it likely to increase a focus on past problems and obstacles?
■ Does this question leave room for new and different questions to be raised as the initial question is explored?

Protect your audience

News can be jarring and upsetting, and you may need to ask people about traumatic events that they have suffered. Give respondents the chance to be anonymous. Your newsroom’s reach might mean that you suddenly become the top result in Google for their name. How might that impact their life, their relationships, their job prospects in the future?

If people can see that you care about these details, they are more likely to trust you with personal stories. You can also build that trust by reducing how much data you collect, and by not being creepy. Martin Shelton wrote on our blog about newsroom data collection and how to try to avoid being creepy.

Surveys and forms get information. Good surveys and forms get useful information, while making the people who share it feel like the effort was worthwhile.

More reading
The Formulate Blog
Forms That Work
Open and closed ended questions
How to avoid trigger words in your survey writing
Six common survey mistakes
Personal Histories and data collection
Leading community engagement practitioners share their creative approaches

Image by Sethoscope, CC-BY-2.0.

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