Three tools for online surveys

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© Lead Image © Dusit Panyakhom,

© Lead Image © Dusit Panyakhom,

Article from Issue 162/2014

Increasingly, surveys that measure customer satisfaction, political opinion, and so on are conducted over the Internet. We researched which tools are suitable for online surveys and which help you the most with statistical analyses.

Surveys are bread and butter for market researchers, but students, companies, and journalists also need to tap into current opinion. They query the participants either in person, by telephone, in writing, or online. The benefits of computer-based surveys are obvious: The software not only provides the questionnaire via a browser but also stores the answers directly on the server. Therefore, most survey tools contain features that help with the statistical analysis, generate reports and charts, and export the data into other formats.

Platforms that host survey software  – and provide their services for smaller or larger amounts of money  – abound on the net, and I include here a representative from this category: Polldaddy [1]. In this article, I compare Polldaddy with two solutions that run on standard LAMP servers  – the open source programs LimeSurvey [2] and Opina [3]  – and look at how convenient the installation and setup is on a typical LAMP system. All three candidates were asked to show how they deal with the responses from participants, whether anonymization functions exist, and whether they help evaluate the responses and export the data for further processing.


The first test candidate comes from the open source camp and is free of charge. LimeSurvey is released under the GPL and feels at home in a classic LAMP environment. In 2003, the project was launched under the name PHPSurveyor. In 2007, it was renamed and "PHP" was removed to avoid conflicts with the PHP license.

LimeSurvey is implemented in PHP and works not only with MySQL but also with the PostgreSQL or MS SQL databases. The Installation Guide [4] lists the system requirements and describes the setup on your own server and local operation on Windows machines. The version tested for this article was 2.05 from February 4, 2014.

Before unpacking the download package, you need to create a new database for LimeSurvey. Set up the limesurvey directory below the document root on your web server. After unpacking, modify the permissions of the directories /limesurvey/tmp, /limesurvey/upload, and /limesurvey/application/config, making them writable and executable for at least the owner and the group.

Next, trigger installation of the survey tool in the browser, call the URL and follow the instructions. Finally, you need to specify an admin account, including a password, enter the page name, and choose one of the more than 80 languages.

You can now log in as the administrator. The green icon at the top lets you configure the general settings, verify and back up the database, edit the label sets, and start the plugin manager, which was introduced in version 2.05. The developers provide a few extensions, and the wiki lists third-party contributions [5].

The icon with the brush takes you to the template editor, which you can use to add an attractive design. Ten or so finished looks are provided, and you can apply your own color scheme, logo, or other text directly in the web interface  – some HTML and CSS knowledge is required. The LimeSurvey website download section offers additional templates.

To create a survey, click at the top right on the green plus sign in the interface. Then, assign an intuitive name and select a language from the drop-down menu. Other languages and question translations can be added later, if needed.

LimeSurvey provides wysiwyg editors that let you enter a description, a welcome text, or a final message for the respondents. Additionally, the administrator specifies an email address, an address for returns, and possibly a fax number.

After saving, the still empty survey appears in the web interface. Use the plus sign next to the field Question groups to generate at least one set of questions; you can generate several if needed. Longer surveys are easier to read if they are composed of multiple question groups and thus of subpages. LimeSurvey also displays a progress bar at the top that tells participants what percentage of the survey they have already completed.


For each group, you then define the individual questions, which you add with a mouse click, and assign each an internal code. This step is optional but should follow a certain logic. For example, you could use A001, A002, A003 for questions in the first group; B001, B002, B003 for questions in the second group; and so on. At the bottom of the dialog is a button for importing existing questions, question groups, or entire surveys, if needed.

In a drop-down menu, you can now select a question type from a wide range of types. I liked the fact that the survey tool pops up a preview when the user's mouse hovers over an entry (Figure 1). A click on Show advanced settings shows you the fine-tuning options for the selected question. You can use these to influence the display and the logic, set a time limit, and define the subsequent statistical analysis. You can then type the actual question in an editor window and enrich it with multimedia content, such as images or Flash animations.

Figure 1: With a small preview, LimeSurvey facilitates the selection of the correct question type.

After saving the question, you can do some fine tuning. Icons above the question let you edit, show a preview, verify the survey logic, edit the response options, and set any default values. You also will find buttons for deleting, copying, and exporting the question. For the latter, LimeSurvey requires the PHP XML extension. The symbol with the branching arrows takes you to a window where you can define the conditions for the question. This feature makes it possible to guide participants, depending on the answers given in the survey.

In Action

Once you have set up all the groups and questions, you will want to test the survey by clicking on the gear icon at the top left. If everything is satisfactory, you can enable the survey by pressing the little green arrow next to the red square. LimeSurvey reports any missing answers or options and points out that the admin cannot change groups, questions, or parts of questions after release. It is thus the only test candidate that prevents garbage resulting from retrospective modifications of an ongoing survey.

In the same dialog, the survey manager can make decisions on data protection. The drop-down lets you anonymize responses and permit or prohibit date stamping, storing IP addresses, or saving referrer URLs and timings (Figure 2). After saving, LimeSurvey tells you that the survey is now active and the results table has been created. By default, all surveys are public. If you prefer a closed group of participants, click on Switch to closed mode and generate an access key.

Figure 2: LimeSurvey attaches great importance to data protection and prevents the storing of IPs, timestamps, and so on, if desired.

LimeSurvey shows links to public polls on the overview page. Unless you want to copy invitations and pass them on manually, you can distribute invitations by mail. A centrally maintained subscriber database with a function that automatically generates passkeys adds convenience to this process. In the general configuration, the admin sets up how the tool sends electronic mail. In addition to the internal PHP mailer, Sendmail, SMTP (relaying), and Qmail are all available. Optional SSL/TLS encryption is available for SMTP.

LimeSurvey offers a wide range of export options. For the surveys, you can save either the structure or the results. The CSV, Excel, PDF, Word, HTML, and R (syntax file and data file) formats are available for the latter. Icons take you to export options for SPSS/PASW.

LimeSurvey stores the survey structure in its own LSS and LSA formats, as well as in CSV and text files. The tool complements the entire process with different types of reports, including optional bar charts. Whereas the competition is fairly monochrome here, LimeSurvey provides colorful charts for more clarity (Figure  3).

Figure 3: LimeSurvey exports to many formats and also draws colored bar charts that clearly present the results.

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