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Guide to translating detailed documents into online surveys

Matthew Hornsby -

A common experience for many users is having to create an online survey consultation based around a lengthy document, generally in Microsoft Word™ format. This presents several difficulties - it is not always straightforward to translate the document into an easy-to-answer online survey whilst staying faithful to the original format. This is particularly the case if you want the questions to appear in the the body of the document, rather than gathered after it.

In order to turn documents accurately into good online surveys, we need to be a little bit creative and flexible. Here are some tips and tricks that can help you with the process:

Embedding documents

How do I embed documents into my survey?

A really handy feature when turning a document into a consultation is embedding. This allows you to build the original document into the body of your online survey, either as a normal part of the survey or in a fact bank. It's a good way of giving people easy reference to the document, allowing them to scroll through and read the details without having to navigate away from the online survey.

example of a PDF file embedded in a consultation survey page

Making good use of fact banks and the additional text answer component

You can add contextual, interesting and helpful information at the top of each page of your survey by using the page introduction or fact bank text boxes - these appear as soon as you add a new page. Using these adds information to the top of your page, above your questions, but it is also possible to add contextual information as additional text or in fact banks further down within the question section too. These are available as 'additional information' options within the answer components to your question (see image below) and can help your to target where you add helpful text, images etc. so it doesn't all have to go at the top of your page.

the question page with answer component drop down list showing the additional information component options circled in red

How do I use fact banks?

Fact banks are a useful tool that let you tuck information away behind a tab. You can also build fact banks into questions in an online survey, making them particularly handy if there is a chunk of information (ie. a section of your document) that would be useful for respondents to refer to when they are answering the question. You can combine Fact Banks with the document embedder to create a concealed document - if you are able to split your pdf file up into several chunks, it can be useful to put these into individual fact banks for respondents' easy reference.

Additional text allows you to add in contextual information, guidance, images, videos, PDFs and other rich text within question sections and helps you to layer up answer components. If you ever think to yourself "it'd be great if I could add an image in to this question" or "I could really do with adding in more of an explanation here (within the question area)" then this is the component for you. Here is an example of what this could look like - the image has been added using an 'additional text' answer component:

image showing a question with an additional information text answer component which has been used to provide an embedded map within the question area. This is followed by a radio button answer component and then a multi=line text box answer component. This set up allows contextual information within the question area

Q: When should I use a fact bank rather than adding 'additional text' to a question or putting information into the page intro?

Use factbanks rather than 'additional text' when you have some respondents who may be familiar with the information already. A fact bank will hide the information from those who already know it (avoiding them having to scroll through it, or you being accused of teaching anyone to suck eggs), whilst making sure the additional information is there for those respondents who need to refer to it.

Pasting from word

How do I paste from a word document into my consultation?

Rather than inserting your document into the consultation as a PDF, you may prefer to paste individual passages and pages into your consultation. 

If you do need to do this - please, please use the 'Paste from Word' icon on the text editor toolbar. This toolbar is called a WYSIWYG (this stands for What You See Is What You Get) and, rather fittingly, the Paste from Word icon looks like a clipboard with the Word icon on it:

image showing the location of the paste from word button on the What You See Is What You Get editor

There are plenty of places in the online survey to put this kind of content: on the homepage, in page descriptions, in fact banks, and in text boxes as answer components to questions, wherever you see the above toolbar in fact.

The example below, from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency's Citizen Space site, show examples of consultations that have been created on Citizen Space based on Word documents. SEPA are very effective users of Citizen Space for providing information on complex issues.

example of a Microsoft Word document that has been successfully translated into Citizen Space

The problems that come when Word talks to websites:

It is worth being aware that there are some issues that can arise when trying to paste content from Word documents into Citizen Space (or any website in fact):


Tables often do not copy across correctly to Citizen Space, despite correct use of the 'Paste from Word' tool. This, along with other issues, is related to differences in the way that web browsers and Word format data. You may find that your table copies across perfectly fine, but often it may look different, column sizes changed etc. Please also bear in mind that a table pasted from Word may look fine in your web browser, but not in a different/older browser - try testing how your survey looks on different browsers if possible.

The one thing pasting from Word will not be able to do is to carry across any styling you have put on the table, e.g. colours for individual cells. Consequently, we have written about putting tables in websites due to these pasting issues and this article explains how to create tables using the html editor contained in the online survey tool.

example showing a table built in html within a consultation


If your original Word document contained references to footnotes, these may behave in a strange way when copied across into Citizen Space - although as with tables, they may copy across fine, depending on your browser, version of Word etc. 

example demonstrating how footnotes can be displayed within a consultation


Some further questions we often get asked via our support email:

1) "Why isn't the WYSIWYG toolbar available on the questions themselves?"

This is to do with the results exports that Citizen Space produces. The crux of the issue is that to support formatting, and specifically line breaks in questions, we would need to support having HTML in question titles. Currently we can't, as if we did that, we would also have to be able to cleverly strip away the html too, so that it could work with .xlsx exports, the filters in reporting, and other places in the app. This HTML formatting and stripping would have to be restricted, as these questions also have to look ok on a single line, so things like lists are something we can't do.

The way to manage this is to use a concise question title or statement in the question text box itself, followed by an Additional Text answer component to add extra context. If this is an absolute no-no as well, then you could go to town with a custom header, which overwrites the question text entirely, as mentioned in the article above. 

2) How do I put contextual text, images or words between answer components in single question?

Use the 'additional text' answer component, this will give you the option of a WYSIWYG text box, which you can use to put in nice images, videos, pdf embeds and rich text between or above other answer components.

3) Can I put my survey in chapter format?

Yes you can, you need to make your survey non-linear which will give it a table of contents and the ability to put in a rich introduction to this contents page as well - this article on the difference between linear and non-linear surveys may help.