Open-Ended Questions: Why You Need Them and Examples

When I worked as a journalist, getting an interesting sound bite or a powerful quote from a source was a big challenge.

I would get through my list of questions with the source, but sometimes, I still didn’t get what I needed. So in the end, I would ask them an open-ended question:

“Is there anything else you think I should know?”

Often, asking that one question helped me get the most valuable responses. People would open up to me and tell me interesting things that they otherwise would not.

It cut through a lot of walls and helped me get at the truth. That’s the power of open-ended questions. If you use them effectively in your surveys, you’ll get immensely valuable responses that’ll help you move forward as a business.

When making a survey, the average person is anxious about asking open-ended questions, trying to avoid them so as to not ask too much of their respondents.

But open-ended survey questions shouldn’t be avoided. You just need to know when and how to ask them. In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about open-ended survey questions.

What are Open Ended Questions?

We’ll start with defining the kinds of questions you can ask in a survey, and they’re mainly of two types: open-ended and close-ended. We’re mostly dealing with open-ended questions in this article, but we’ll walk you through both to help you understand the difference and make better choices.

Close Ended Questions

You’ve likely encountered multiple choice questions in a survey before. There is a list of options, and you have to choose the ones you agree with. That’s a kind of close-ended question. A question that has a restricted set of responses from which respondents can choose is close-ended.

An advantage of close-ended questions is that they’re highly suited to analysis. If responses are picked from a set of options, it is much easier for surveyors to analyze the data and gain meaningful insights.

Open Ended Questions

If close-ended questions have a restricted set of responses, what are open-ended questions? Not that, simply. Open-ended questions allow respondents to respond freely, without giving them a set template for responses. They typically come with a descriptive text box, in which respondents can write whatever they want.

They are relatively harder to analyze as data sets, but they help you capture subjective experience better. You might have not addressed some issues in your survey that might come up in open-ended questions. By allowing respondents to take them wherever they please, you’re opening up the field for responses.

Why Open Ended Questions are Useful in Surveys

On the surface, it seems like you’d always want to ask a close-ended question if it’s possible. After all, they are more suited to data analysis and quicker for respondents to get through. But open-ended questions have their own advantages that cannot be overlooked.

Cons of Having Open Ended Survey Questions

We want to begin by making you aware of the problems you can face with this type of question. If you are fully aware of the potential cons of open-ended questions, you will know how and when to use them.

Requires More Effort

As a survey organizer, you must be well aware of the challenge of getting people to respond to your survey. That is one of the biggest obstacles to a successful survey campaign. At Surveysparrow, we’re able to give our clients over 40% more responses with our beautiful survey templates. But we digress.

People leave surveys incomplete when you ask them for too much effort. An open-ended question requires users to think for themselves and then articulate their thoughts. That’s far too much effort if your respondent only wants to spend a few seconds on your survey. That’s why this kind of question is often avoided in quick surveys.

Difficult To Analyze

If you get people to respond to your open-ended question, the next task at hand is to analyze those responses. With Surveysparrow’s dashboard, getting analytics for close-ended questions is a matter of a couple of clicks. But with open-ended questions, there’s no great way of analyzing them without going through each one.

Open-ended questions, by their very nature, are all about the subjective experience. You’re leaving space for customers or employees to express grievances that you didn’t already foresee. That’s why they are not exactly quantifiable since each one might look very different from the other.

Invites Vague Responses

When you’re asking customers if they’d recommend your service to a friend (that’s an NPS survey, by the way), you don’t want them to be talking about how they don’t talk to their friends much. You want a score from 1–10 so that you can quantify your customer experience. That’s where you need a close-ended question.

When you ask an open-ended question, you always run the risk of getting vague responses. There’s no guarantee that anything respondents say is relevant to your business. When you’re looking for precise quantifiable responses, don’t ask an open-ended question.

How Open Ended Questions Can Be Powerful

You might be confused at this point. If open-ended questions have such cons, why do we think they can change the game? Because open-ended questions need to be used the right way, you don’t face any of the cons and just reap the benefits. Here’s how you can go about doing that:

Finding New Themes

Let’s say that you’re conducting a customer satisfaction survey. You’re very focused on how the store personnel treated you or how your digital interface worked. Most of the questions you’ve asked in your survey are about that. But you don’t realize that customers are often left confused by the arrangement of items in your store.

It’s not a problem you anticipated, but it exists. You wouldn’t know to ask about such things, and that’s why you need an open-ended question. “What could we have done better?” and sooner or later, a customer will mention a problem or area of improvement you never thought about.

Don’t Make Them Mandatory

These questions do take a lot of effort for people to answer. That’s why you need to take the pressure off and make the open-ended questions optional. When respondents don’t feel coerced by the survey, they might as well jot down a few thoughts they had. That’s exactly what you need here. Respondents need to feel free to address or not address the question.

If you ever consider asking an open-ended question and making it mandatory, think about this: your respondents have nothing to lose by just closing that tab. If they find the survey tedious, you might lose out on their responses to the close-ended questions as well.

Examples of Open-Ended Questions

To give you the most relevant examples of open-ended survey questions, we’ve picked the two most popular surveys in which they’re relevant: customer satisfaction and employee feedback. Let’s look at some examples of how open-ended questions might help you.

Open Ended Questions for Customer Satisfaction Surveys

In a customer satisfaction survey, you want to understand the real experience customers have with your business. Here are some questions that can facilitate that:

“What else do you think we should know?”

With this question, the magic is in the way it’s phrased. You’re making customers think about your interests as a business. They are now thinking from your point of view and reflecting to give you something useful. By keeping your interests at the forefront, this question can generate tremendously useful responses. It’s almost like you’re making your customers into stakeholders who are committed to seeing your business succeed.

“What could we have done better to improve your experience?”

While the previous question focuses on your business interests, this one focuses on the customer’s experience. A lot of times, customers aren’t entirely conscious of what their experience was like, even though they’ve registered grievances subconsciously. By asking them to reflect on their experience, you’re allowing those grievances to be expressed. You can only gain by finding out more about your customers’ feelings towards your business.

“Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”

This question is more straightforward. When reading this question, customers will think back to everything they’ve been asked and check if there’s something you didn’t touch upon. If there is, they’ll tell you in the description box. It’s a good idea to have this question in any survey so that you don’t lose out on themes you didn’t think to touch upon. Again, don’t make it mandatory, but slip it in there. There’s no harm, after all.

Open Ended Questions for Employee Feedback Surveys

Another survey where open-ended questions come in handy is the employee feedback survey. Often, unique problems come up and they need to be expressed respectfully. Well framed questions can facilitate useful feedback:

“What is the best/worst thing about working here?”

This is a question that you will want to ask in an anonymous survey. Employees are more likely to be honest without the fear of repercussions. You can be certain that they have strong feelings about this question. Instead of turning a deaf ear to those feelings, hear about them and address them when possible. That’s the key to making your employees feel seen and increasing employee engagement.

“What could [employee name] do better at the workplace?”

This question is for managers participating in a 360-degree evaluation. Areas of improvement aren’t necessarily limited to a few options, and that’s why you need this question. Managers can use tact to be polite while still conveying ways in which employees can improve. The choice of words becomes critical here, so it’s best to do this with an open-ended question.

“Do you feel like you have enough growth opportunities?”

Like we talked about earlier, open-ended questions are great at making employees (and customers) feel seen and respected. Simply inquiring about employees’ growth is enough to make them feel taken care of. If you can get to know when employees start feeling stuck, you can help them out and reduce your employee attrition rates. Retaining great talent, after all, is the key to the success of any organization.

Wrapping Up

Having a survey full of open-ended questions is a terrible idea. No respondent will fill it excitedly, and most will leave it incomplete. But when you know how to wield the power of open-ended survey questions, they can truly change the game. You can think of these questions as filling the gap left by close-ended questions. The most important, data-driven themes are covered in close-ended questions. But just to be thorough, you include open-ended questions. We are all fallible, after all, and tend to miss themes sometimes.

To get surveys that are well-balanced between close-ended and open-ended questions, check out SurveySparrow. Whether you’re conducting an internal communications survey or a 360-degree employee evaluation, we have templates with just the right number of open-ended questions. Because Surveysparrow’s surveys are also beautiful and interactive, whether on desktop or mobile, we manage to get 40% more responses.

The trick to getting the most out of these questions is to use them just at the right place. Don’t make them mandatory, and get rich insights from your respondents that make your survey exercise a success!

Originally published at https://surveysparrow.com on July 6, 2021.

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