When conducting market research, you need to know the most effective ways to gather information about your customer base. Surveys are a great place to start, but you also need to structure these surveys through your questions.
There are two main types of questions — open-ended and closed-ended. The kind of question you ask affects the data you’ll get, so it’s essential to understand how and when to use each type.
What are open-ended questions?
Open-ended questions are broad and have many possible answers. These would be akin to free-form essay questions on tests and quizzes.
You can spot an open-ended question by how it starts. Look out for the words “how,” “why,” and “what.” Beginning a conversation with “Tell me about…” is another way to ask an open-ended question, even though its phrasing makes it seem like a statement.
To give a thorough answer to an open-ended question, you need to provide details and explanations of what you mean. That’s why open-ended questions put the respondent in control of the conversation. Because the respondent needs to think about their response and how much they want to reveal, they command the flow of information.
For example, if two friends attend a concert or music festival, one might ask the other what they thought of the experience. These questions might surround how they felt about the musician’s performance, the sound quality and the energy of the crowd. In asking open-ended questions, the friend is looking for more information than a simple yes or no.
Because open-ended questions are so broad, you can also get unexpected answers. You might think a product is selling well because of one feature, but asking open-ended questions in a customer survey could reveal there’s actually another feature behind your product’s success.
What are closed-ended questions?
Closed-ended questions are questions with a limited number of possible answers. These would be your multiple-choice or true or false questions on a test.
Look out for questions that you can answer with only a few words. Typical sentence starters are “Do you think…” or “Would you…”
For example, a company might ask a customer if they would refer a product or service they purchased to a friend. The respondent can only answer in one of two ways — yes or no. Often, a no answer might prompt a follow-up question with a multiple-choice answer. Following a closed-ended question with another closed-ended question does limit the respondent’s answers, but it makes interpreting the data much easier for the company.
Because the person asking the question already knows the selection of answers the other person can use, closed-ended questions keep the asker in control. Closed-ended questions are more likely to produce biased responses, but being thoughtful in your phrasing and word choice can easily help you avoid any bias.
The difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions
Open-ended questions keep the conversation open by providing an opportunity for the respondent to explain their thinking. As a result, you’re more likely to get a long and detailed answer to an open-ended question.
Closed-ended questions limit the conversation. Since there are only a few possible choices, the respondent has to adapt their answer to the available choices. With closed-ended questions, answers tend to be short and quick. To learn more about your respondent, you’d need to follow up with a few more questions.
Essentially, the main difference between each type is the length of the answer. If you can you answer it in a few words, it’s a closed-ended question. If you need to give details and explain your point, that’s an open-ended question.
When should you use each type of question?
Open-ended questions are great for situations when you need qualitative data. They can help to place information in context or to expose someone’s thought process. Here are some cases where open-ended questions are common:
- Background information: Asking open-ended questions can help to put your question into context.
- Follow-up questions: If you’ve received an answer and want to know more, you can ask an open-ended question to clarify. For example, you could follow a closed-ended question by asking why your respondent answered that way.
- Feedback: Open-ended questions are more likely to generate thoughtful feedback.
Closed-ended questions are better suited for gathering quantitative data such as demographic information or frequency. For example, if you created a survey about a subscription service, you might ask how long people have subscribed to the service or how much money they expect to pay for similar services.
Closed-ended questions are also better for surveys with a large pool of respondents since they allow for quick analysis. Analysis of open-ended answers requires time and thought, but the quantitative data closed-ended questions provide are easy to interpret and report.
Examples of open and closed-ended questions
For each of the following situations, we’ve provided both closed- and open-ended versions of the question. Pay attention to how the potential answers change depending on the type of question used. Which is more effective in each situation?
Example 1: Customer behavior
A company releases a survey in hopes of learning more about its consumer base.
Closed: “Do you think you would use this product?”
Open: “How would this product fit into your daily routine?”
Example 2: Quantitative data
A company wishes to know which of their products to promote.
Closed: “Out of the following products, which one are you most likely to purchase?”
Open: “Why would you choose this product over the others?”
Example 3: Customer feedback
A company wants to know how effective its website is.
Closed: “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Open: “How can we make our site easier to navigate?”
Example 4: Political polling
A political party wants to know the most pressing issue for its members.
Closed: “Which of the following issues do you feel is most important?”
Open: “What issues would you like us to focus on moving forward?”
Example 5: Campus feedback
A university wants to know if alumni feel that the curriculum provides adequate career preparation.
Closed: “Upon graduation, did you feel prepared for your job?”
Open: “How do you feel your academic program prepared you for your job?”
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Each type of question can be effective in the right situation. As a best practice, ask closed-ended questions when you need quick, quantifiable answers and open-ended questions when you need more information; and be sure to use them sparingly, as too many open-ended questions can cause respondent fatigue.
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