Open-Ended Questions: Best Practices for Getting Valuable Insights Without Torturing Respondents

Many surveys are made up entirely of closed-ended questions. You give them a list of possible responses, and that’s all they have to choose from. These types of questions are great for gathering quantifiable data, and in some cases are all that you need in your survey. But sometimes it can be extremely beneficial for you to include some open-ended questions where your respondents can describe their opinions or experiences with your company in their own words. By giving them this opportunity, you can gain valuable information that you might not even have thought to include in your answer list.

open-ended questions

When They’re Valuable

Open-ended questions can be extremely valuable in a few key situations. The first situation is when you want to hear people describe their opinions in their own words. For example, if you’ve released a new product and you’re surveying people who have used it, it could be valuable to ask an open-ended question about it to see what words your respondents use to describe it.

The next situation where you may use open-ended questions is when you want to measure awareness of a brand or product. Say you’re conducting a survey about your industry as a whole so you can get a feel for your competitors. Asking an open ended question about which companies first come to mind can garner more genuine feedback than if you were to provide a list. Your customers might bring up companies that you didn’t consider as true competitors, or they might list companies in a different order than you had suspected.

Another way that open-ended questions can be used effectively is when you’re looking to discover something new. A great question to include in your survey might be, “What else can we do to improve your experience with this product?” Respondents might come up with features or ideas that you had never considered, and with a closed-ended question there would be no way for you to obtain this extra information.

The Catches

But it is important not to abuse open-ended questions. There is a time and a place for them, but using them recklessly can lead to a few major pitfalls for your market research process. The first downside is that many respondents simply don’t like them. One or two short questions in a survey is usually fine, but respondents don’t want to spend a lot of time typing out answers just because you were too lazy to come up with a list of options. So if a closed-ended question is feasible, it’s usually preferable for your respondents.

It can also possibly lead to skewed data or just bad information. Since many respondents don’t want to take the time to type out an answer, they might drop out of the survey, type a shortened response, or simply not answer at all. You can’t expect everyone’s answers to be helpful. In fact, usually only 30-40% of responses in open-ended questions will even be minimally helpful.

In addition to the survey taking longer for your respondents, it will also take longer for you since you have to read through the responses. Depending on the type of questions, you could try using a word cloud tool to save some time in finding out what words are used most frequently. But the fact is that you’ll have to put some extra time into sorting through open-ended responses. They don’t come in a neat little chart like those multiple choice answers.

Worth it?

Yes, usually open-ended questions are worth it, if used in the right context. Make sure you keep your respondents in mind, and don’t make them work too hard. But when used sparingly, these types of questions can yield you valuable information that you didn’t even know you were looking for.

Photo Credit: Questions? from Flickr

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lev Mazin
Lev is the CEO and Co-founder of AYTM.com - Ask Your Target Market, the leading innovator in DIY online market research. Having a graphic design background, Lev is an expert in UI/UX with over 15 years of experience. Prior to AYTM, Lev worked with such clients as Oracle, Tiffany & Co, Maserati, Harry Winston, Whole Foods Market, and Jamba Juice helping them build their brands and multimedia/web applications.
  • Anonymous

    I find that open ended questions are most useful for negative feedback.
    Not that anyone wants negative opinions of their business or brand, but
    people tend to write more when they have something to be upset about. A
    well placed open ended question just may shed some light on a customer
    service issue or an inherent problem with your product. When people are
    angry, they go on tirades, and will fill you in on every little flaw
    they think your company has, and while it may get blown out of
    proportion by the survey-takers emotions, each complaint is rooted in
    truth, and is an issue that can be addressed.