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Open Access Open Badges Research article

"Do I really want to do this?" Longitudinal cohort study participants' perspectives on postal survey design: a qualitative study

Helen Harcombe1*, Sarah Derrett2, Peter Herbison1 and David McBride1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago, New Zealand

2 Injury Prevention Research Unit, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago, New Zealand

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2011, 11:8  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-8

Published: 27 January 2011



Randomised controlled trials have investigated aspects of postal survey design yet cannot elaborate on reasons behind participants' decision making and survey behaviour. This paper reports participants' perspectives of the design of, and participation in, a longitudinal postal cohort survey. It describes strengths and weaknesses in study design from the perspectives of study participants and aims to contribute to the: 1) design of future cohort surveys and questionnaires generally and, 2) design of cohort surveys for people with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) specifically.


In-depth interviews explored the design of postal surveys previously completed by participants. Interviews used open ended questioning with a topic guide for prompts if areas of interest were not covered spontaneously. Thematic data analysis was undertaken based on the framework method. A second researcher verified all coding.


Data from fourteen interviews were analysed within three main themes; participation, survey design and survey content. One of the main findings was the importance of clear communication aimed at the correct audience both when inviting potential participants to take part and within the survey itself. Providing enough information about the study, having a topic of interest and an explanation of likely benefits of the study were important when inviting people to participate. The neutrality of the survey and origination from a reputable source were both important; as was an explanation about why information was being collected within the survey itself. Study findings included participants' impressions when invited to take part, why they participated, the acceptability of follow-up of non-responders and why participants completed the follow-up postal survey. Also discussed were participants' first impression of the survey, its length, presentation and participants' views about specific questions within the survey.


Ideas generated in this study provide an insight into participants' decision making and survey behaviour and may enhance the acceptability of future surveys to potential participants. As well as clear communication, participants valued incentives and survey questions that were relevant to them. However, opinions varied as to the preferred format for responses with some advising more opportunity for open-ended feedback. We also found that some standard format questions can raise quandaries for individual participants.