surveys

Open-Ended Question: What it is How to Use it (+Examples)

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Customer research is a large discipline with multiple methods to get the right information from your audience or customer base. 

Surveys are among the most effective ways to get deep insights from your most engaged users. It helps you understand how they feel about specific topics and give you perspectives – through open-ended questions – you might have otherwise missed.

These insights, also known as the voice of the customer, can expand your marketing, improve your products, and cancel out objections. In a world of choice, this is becoming even more important.

In this article, you’ll learn what open-ended questions are, their advantages, how to use them, and solid examples to make them easier to implement.

What is an Open-Ended Question?

Open-ended questions are a type of unstructured survey question that allows the respondent more room to reply in an open text format thereby providing the opportunity to give more detailed answers. The only limitation usually imposed is a character limit so open-ended questions can be divided into long answer and short answer questions. 

Put another way, a respondent can draw on their knowledge, feelings, and understanding of the question and topic to give more insightful answers. They’re not limited by preset question options. 

An example of an open-ended question could be “how do you feel about your new job?”

open-ended question example

Research from Vision Critical found that 87% of consumers want to have a say in a company’s products and services. Open-ended questions give them the opportunity to share information in a way that close ended questions don’t. 

Open-Ended Vs Close Ended Questions

As shared in the last section, open-ended questions are free-form and allow respondents to use an open text format to give replies. They’re able to say whatever they want in response to your questions. 

Close ended questions, on the other hand, are structured and have a preset group of questions a respondent can answer. Though they can still help you, you’re not able to use the voice of the customer to inform your decisions. 

Each one has merits and demerits. For example, an open-ended question allows you to probe much deeper but a close ended question allows you to get concise information that can be quantified. It’s much easier to quantify yes or nos than a paragraph of text. 

A relatable example comes from the standardized tests most of us took in school. They usually had two parts – the multiple-choice questions which are equivalent to close ended questions and the essay questions which are equal to open-ended questions. 

A close ended question: Yes or No – Was George Washington was the first president of the United States? 

An open-ended question: From the perspective of the British, what was the cause of the Revolutionary War?

As you can see from the examples, the open-ended survey questions will give you a look into the thought process of your customers. 

Advantages of open-ended questions

Some advantages are obvious while others aren’t but they tend to be more important than the disadvantages because the responses you get have so many direct tangible uses for your business. A few of the advantages include:  

Thoughtful responses

With a series of multiple-choice questions, respondents can quickly scan and choose an answer. That answer may or may not be indicative of how they feel. Open-ended questions force your respondents to slow down long enough to consider the question and give a thoughtful answer. 

Even if they give a short answer that doesn’t shed much light on the situation, it’s still helpful. It tells you the respondent’s answers shouldn’t have as much weight. 

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Customers can share their feelings 

The internet is crowded. The lifespan of a Tweet is about 30 minutes and that of a Facebook post is roughly 1 hour. Anything you say is lost in a short amount of time. 

With surveys and open-ended questions, you give your customers an opportunity to voice their opinions and create in a way that can create change in your organization. If they like what you’re doing and care about your products then they’ll take the time to give you useful feedback. 

Identifying weak spots 

Close ended questions are notorious for only giving you half the answer you need. For example, if you ask a customer “how was your experience with us today?” and they answer “disappointing”, there’s no room to ask them why. This can leave you wondering if you have a real problem.

An open-ended question gives them the opportunity to tell you it was disappointing and lay out the reasons why. With that information, you can determine if it was an isolated incident or something that demands immediate attention. 

More Detailed Information

Open-ended questions were built to deliver qualitative information and, like we talk about in our free course, the more detailed the information you get from a respondent the more engaged they are. 

That information is indicative of your hottest buyer segment and the details they reveal will help you create better messages, identify your ideal target market, and otherwise make the right decisions in your business. 

The key to using the extra information these types of survey questions can give you is to look for patterns in the data. If one person says something then you may or may not be on the verge of a breakthrough. If five or ten people say something similar then there’s promise. 

When you should use open-ended questions

These questions lend themselves well to qualitative research. That means they should be used when quality is more important than the quantity of data. 

In other words, it’s used when you want to use the answers to find deep insights into the mind of your target audience. For example, you’d use them in the following situations: 

  •   When a detailed response is needed so you can use the voice of the customer or detect patterns in the types of responses you get.
  •   When you want your prospects to think critically about the question and the possible response they’ll give
  •   If varied answers will help you develop a better understanding of the topic or field (like when you want to enter a new market).
  •   When you need to ask complicated questions and your respondents will benefit from being able to work through their thought process.

When to avoid open-ended questions

Unfortunately, you can’t always use open-ended questions. Sometimes,  a quick answer is ideal. For example, you want to know if someone has heard of your brand before. There’s no need to wax poetic about the possible reasons why they’ve not heard of it. Yes or no will do.

There are multiple situations in which free-form questions would do more harm than good. A few of them include: 

  • When you have a longer survey and are short on resources to analyze the patterns in text answers 
  • If you want to make a quick and automated analysis of the data
  • Only have basic questions that don’t need much expansion
  • Have a structured survey that derives it’s usefulness when a respondent chooses one of the available answers (like an NPS style survey or a Likert scale survey

The correct way to ask open-ended questions

There is a right way and a wrong way to ask questions – especially open-ended questions. Like all surveys, you want to collect unbiased data so you can make decisions that move the needle in the right direction. The wording of your questions can have a big impact on how its perceived by your respondent. 

Don’t lead respondents

Surveys are not the time to convince someone of your view or to purposely elicit a positive response. Avoid wording that would predispose someone to answer positively or negatively. 

For example, a question like “we’re considered a market leader and have over 10,000 customers, what do you think about our company?” is biased. It predisposes the respondent to give you positive feedback.  

Consider talking to a team member or an impartial third party and showing them your questions to ensure they’re not biased. Put yourself in the shoes of the respondent and ask yourself if the question makes you feel positively or negatively towards the person asking. 

Use close ended and open-ended questions together

This method is a staple of consumer research. The most effective surveys ask a close-ended question and, depending on how the respondent answers, an open-ended question is used as a follow-up. It helps focus the respondent and bring out insights that would otherwise be missed by a close-ended question. 

Another benefit of using these two questions together stems from getting qualitative and quantitative answers. You’re able to say X people were dissatisfied with the product and X people were satisfied. For the ones who were dissatisfied, these are the reasons and places where we can improve.

Be aware of the Difference Between Question Types

At times, it can be difficult to determine if a closed or open question will be better for your needs. There’s a quick way to determine the best type. If you want the reasons behind an answer then use open-ended. If you want the raw answer without explanations then use the close ended questions. 

Of course, this should be determined on a case by case basis. When in doubt, it may be a better idea to change the question or exclude it altogether. It’s more important to get clean data.

Focus on feelings before facts

Phrase your questions so they’ll help you understand the reasons and emotions behind an answer. Instead of “How would you describe your support experience today?” Ask “how do you feel about your support experience today?” 

The difference is subtle but it can help you understand the emotions associated with an experience or product. If it’s a negative sentiment then you can take steps to change that. If it was a positive sentiment then you can focus on doubling down on what’s working.

11 Open-Ended Question Examples 

1. How does X make you feel?

This question leans towards an emotional response instead of a purely objective one. It’s helpful when finding marketing copy that incorporates the voice of the customer.

2. What do you consider fun?

This question is useful because it helps reveal psychographic information and can also help you uncover different ways to position your products. For example, you can be the perfect widget for bike enthusiasts. 

3. What brought you to our website today?

This works on two separate levels. You can find out which advertising channels are working and the reason why people are seeking you out. This will help refine your messaging. 

4. What are your thoughts about ‘Product X’?

The question above reveals unbiased information about how your products are perceived. You’re asking the customer to say what they think is good (or bad) about your products.

5. What can we do better?

This question is direct and assumes that there’s room for improvement in your products and services. Use with caution because it may force your respondent to find problems where none exist.

6. What aspects of our website do you like?

This, again, is a direct question that may force users to mention things they don’t truly like. Use with caution. 

7. How do you prefer to shop (or workout, or travel, etc.)?

Questions like these help you derive insights that make your products fit seamlessly into the lives of your target market. If your people like to work out at home, you can create products that cater to that preference. If they like to travel by road, you can create relevant products. 

8. What do you like about x?

The X here can be general or specific depending on what you chose to focus on. For example, “what do you like about our customer service or what do you like about our company?” One of the questions gives a broad answer and the other is focused.

9. What do you dislike about x?

The opposite perspective of the previous question open-ended question.

10. How can we create a better experience for you? 

These questions focus on the direct improvement of a product or service. For example, what can we do to make your support experience better?

11. How can we make it easier for you to purchase today?

This question may not be ideal for a standard questionnaire because it works best in real-time. Instead, you can use it in your live chat or chatbots to engage people at the point of purchase.

Conclusion 

There are multiple ways to go about customer research. One of the most powerful and inexpensive is surveys. 

They can give you deep insights from a large number of people in a relatively short amount of time. This article has gone through everything you need to know to make effective open-ended questions to improve your business and grow your audience. 

Let me know what you think in the comments and don’t forget to share it. 

Open-ended question FAQ

What is an open-ended question?

Open-ended questions are a type of unstructured survey question that allows the respondent more room to reply in an open text format and provides the opportunity to give more detailed answers

What are the advantages of open-ended questions?

  • More thoughtful responses
  • Respondents can give more detailed answers which reveal more insights
  • Give respondents an opportunity to speak their minds
  • Identify weak spots in your organization

What to consider before using open-ended questions?

  • The way the question is worded
  • How to follow-up with responses for maximum value
  • The right time to use open-ended and close ended questions

Are close ended or open-ended questions better?

This depends on the situation and your goals. Open-ended questions give more insights but close ended can help with quantification of responses.                   

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