Open-Ended Questions vs. Closed-Ended Questions

Verint Team September 16, 2013

When it comes to data collection, using open-ended vs. closed-ended questions is a topic that’s constantly up for debate. Recently, we had a user who had written a questionnaire with 40 open-ended questions. The survey was easy to write and set up in Vovici v4 (every question was an essay question), but the results were a challenge to analyze. Our user had to read a list of verbatim responses for every question, then categorize them and tally the categories.

Open-ended questions are easy to write but hard to analyze. Conversely, closed-ended questions can be hard to write but easy to analyze. The difficulty in creating a closed-ended question is coming up with an appropriate choice list that covers the most common answers and doesn’t bias responses.

For instance, it is easy to ask:

what is your favorite color

Do this, though, and you will get results something like this:

Blackbluefire engine redgreenpurplered
blackblueGraygreyredsea green
blackblueGreenorangeredsky blue
Blueblue r0x!!greenorangeredyellow

While sorting and categorizing colors is not as difficult as sorting and categorizing lists of products and vendors (something I did a lot of early in my career), it can still be a time-consuming and unnecessary step.

Table of Contents

What Is an Open-Ended Question?

Open-ended questions are survey questions that can be answered in a free-form format. These questions would not be multiple-choice, and they typically allow a respondent to express the entirety of what they know, think, or feel about a subject. 

In contrast, closed-ended questions generally are confined to a specific set of responses (i.e., a “yes or no” or multiple-choice question).

When to use open-ended questions

When crafting an employee or customer engagement survey, you may wonder when is the right time to use open-ended vs. closed-ended questions. You need to look at the big picture if you’re struggling to decide.

Open-ended questions are best used when you’re looking for deeper, more thoughtful insight from your respondents. These types of questions provide employees and customers with a better outlet for their voice. Employees will feel “heard,” which leads to better workforce optimization. You’ll also be able to field unlimited responses from both satisfied and dissatisfied customers.

You may be surprised by the freedom and creativity respondents use to answer these questions. But the resulting answers will leave you with an unlimited amount of raw, honest data from which to draw actionable insights. 

What Is a Closed-Ended Question?

Closed-ended questions are survey questions where respondents choose from structured responses. Great examples are “yes or no” questions, multiple-choice questions, and specific demographic questions. The choices can be longer than just a word or two, but the main characteristic is less freedom and creativity for the respondent’s answer. 

When to use closed-ended questions

Closed-ended questions are useful for qualitative research. If the effectiveness of your survey relies on the analysis and manipulation of the data more than the data itself, you may want to consider using closed-ended questions. 

Organizations may want to consider using closed-ended questions as a precursor to a survey with more open-ended questions. Collecting qualitative data first via closed-ended responses may provide you with an opportunity to home in on exactly what’s on respondents’ minds.

Being able to tally multiple instances of a few structured responses is also great for statistical data. Your survey responses can be easily tracked and plotted in visual representations such as charts and graphs. Showcasing data in this way may help your team quickly draw conclusions about how to act on the survey results.

Best Practices for Writing Open-Ended Questions

Writing open-ended vs. closed-ended questions requires a different technique and thought process. Since open-ended questions ask for more respondent input than closed-ended questions, they need to be approached differently.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind for writing effective open-ended questions.

1. Understanding the difference between open-ended vs. closed-ended questions

You need to be absolutely clear on this before sending your survey. The intention of your survey should be clear, and, as a result, you’ll be able to choose the correct format for your survey questions. You should opt for open-ended questions whenever you need to elicit feelings or feedback. Be sure not to lead your respondents in their answers, but rather give them the complete freedom to answer in whichever way they see fit.

2. Make any question open-ended

Think critically about the questions you’re asking your survey respondents. Examine past questions and see if there’s a way to change any closed-ended questions to open-ended. Doing so will provide more insight into topics that warrant deeper feedback.

3. Follow up a closed-ended question with open-ended questions

This is an excellent way of implementing the targeted approach we mentioned earlier. You’re starting by gathering hard, qualitative data that’s important to you and your team. Then, by following with an open-ended prompt, you can have your respondents open up more to offer opportunities for improvement.

4. Create a list of open-ended questions

It’s helpful to come up with this list before bringing your survey to life. It may also be a good idea to save any open-ended questions you’ve used in the past as a reference bank for future surveys. If you’re struggling with how to phrase your open-ended survey questions, try using statements that start with “What,” “Why,” “How,” or “Tell us.” Basically, think about framing your questions in a way so they don’t try to elicit a definitive answer, but more about encouraging a response that has more freedom to interpret the question.

5. Clarify the intent of your survey

Fielding the answers to open-ended questions may be more challenging for a larger sample group. Ultimately, balancing useful survey results with efficient knowledge management will guide you to the right choice for your survey.

Best Practices for Writing Closed-ended Questions

1. Make sure the list contains all common choices

Have a co-worker review the list to ensure no obvious choices are missing. How can you ask people their favorite color and leave out one of the primary colors?! A co-worker should have quickly spotted that “Yellow” was missing from the choice list. (For more on this point, see Favorite Color Survey Results: How Short Choice Lists Lead to Wrong Answers.)

2. Provide respondents with an “Other – please specify” choice

This is an important “escape valve” in the event you missed some minor choices. It also lets you purposefully leave out any unlikely choices. You may need to categorize and tally the answers to this part of the question if a lot of respondents select “Other.”  However, this is usually such a small percentage of overall responses that it won’t be necessary.

3. Reduce clutter by removing unlikely choices

No one selected “Magenta” or “Hot Pink,” and only one respondent selected “Maroon” or “Gray.” It may be difficult to determine which choices will be unpopular in advance. As an example, our team recently drafted a question with four choices. Upon receiving the survey results, we found one choice was not selected by any of the 140+ respondents. Oops! Some choice lists you will refine as you go. When in doubt, include the choice.

4. Arrange the choices in a logical order

Why aren’t “Sky Blue,” “Lime Green,” and “Hot Pink” next to their base colors? Why isn’t the list in some type of order? Choices shouldn’t be written one after another, at random, in a stream-of-consciousness format. The appropriate order for your choice list may be numeric order (for salary ranges, for instance) or some other natural order. If no particular order seems apparent to you, sort alphabetically.

Closed-ended questions may seem simpler on the surface. However, they may require as much – if not more – thought and planning than open-ended questions. Having survey questions with finite, structured answers may make more sense for a larger, random sampling than a smaller pool of respondents from a convenience sampling.

Mastering Open-ended vs Closed-ended Questions Creates Great Answers

The art of asking great survey questions boils down to knowing when to choose open-ended vs. closed-ended questions. Both formats are valuable tools in your arsenal but become even more effective when you implement them with ninja-like precision.

As an industry leader in customer and employee engagement, Verint Systems can help you make the most out of your survey questions. Our experts, library of resources, and tools can provide you with all the data and insights you need.

Contact Verint today to leverage the power of AI to grow your business while maintaining the happiest of customers and employees.