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GuidesCustomer researchUltimate guide to open-ended survey questions (with examples)

Ultimate guide to open-ended survey questions (with examples)

Last updated

8 March 2023

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Research can provide vital information about your audience. By asking high-value questions, you can quickly obtain a large amount of data without wasting your or your customers' time.

Yet, it can be challenging to determine how to keep your audience's attention and gather the information you need. Open-ended survey questions are a great way to start a conversation and get specific information.

Our guide will help you understand exactly what open-ended questions are, when to use them, and how to analyze the results. You’ll also find some examples to help you get started.

What are open-ended questions?

Open-ended questions allow respondents to answer in an open-text format based on their knowledge or opinions. Open questions cannot be answered with a short, fixed response like Yes or No. They ask people to provide answers in their own words to elicit more information. Usually, open-ended questions are used to gather qualitative data that can help improve products or overall customer experience.

The best open-ended questions are concise without leading the respondent. When you phrase questions in a brief, clear format, you're more likely to receive relevant answers. However, if you lead respondents with added information, you'll likely receive biased answers that offer little value.

For instance, reminding customers of the product they buy most before asking them what their favorite product is will likely result in a response that repeats the question. Similarly, phrasing questions too positively can mean you never receive valuable negative feedback that would be pivotal in improving your products or services.

Open-ended vs closed-ended questions

Surveys may use open-ended questions, closed-ended questions, or a combination of both. While both types of questions gather valuable data, they have different purposes.

Open-ended questions motivate respondents to provide feedback in their own words. Closed-ended questions gather a measurable response by using a format that only allows specific answers. They are usually phrased to bring out a yes or no answer, or they are presented in a multiple-choice format.

When to ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions are not ideal for every situation. They work best under the following circumstances.

When surveying a small audience

Since open-ended questions require respondents to answer in their own words, each answer will be unique. Limiting these questions to small audiences makes it easier to structure and analyze the data.

When surveying experts

Open-ended questions provide experts with an opportunity to present and explain their knowledge and related opinions. You would still need to limit the number of respondents to ensure easy analysis.

When conducting preliminary research

Open-ended questions allow you to learn more about what satisfies your customers. They can be used in preliminary qualitative research about new product ideas or improvements to existing products or services.

The information can then be used to develop closed-ended questions for a larger follow-up study.

When conducting a survey

Open-ended questions can be used in all types of surveys, either in conjunction with closed-ended questions or as standalone questions that gather specific information. Open-ended questions are great for learning more about customer satisfaction or employee engagement.

When conducting qualitative sessions

Open-ended questions can be used in all types of qualitative research. The insights can be cross-examined against close-ended questions from quantitative research. Open-ended questions are great for learning more about:

  • Customer motivations

  • Pain points

  • Hidden opportunities

  • The “why” of your quantitative results

How to ask open-ended questions for surveys

When deciding how to phrase your open-ended questions, think about which questions will provide the most useful information for your purpose.

The trick is knowing how to ask an open-ended question whose response will provide the right level of insight without being impossible to analyze later.

When developing open-ended questions for surveys, consider these two questions:

  • How do you start an open-ended question? Terms like How, Why, and What are used to ask open-ended questions. This ensures the answer can’t be a simple Yes or No.

  • How do you present open-ended questions? This is likely to be determined by the context in which you use them. The way you present open-ended questions can help decrease non-response rates.

To prevent having to read thousands of potentially lengthy responses, it’s best to limit the number of respondents. Consider these ways to use open-ended questions.

Transform closed questions into open-ended ones

Think about the questions you typically ask your customers. Do they usually yield only yes or no answers? More importantly, do those answers provide you with the information you need?

Now consider whether an open-ended question would have given you more information. For example, if you ask a customer if they like a new product, and they say yes, you have limited information. However, if you ask if there is anything they like about the product, you will get more useful data to apply to other products and services.

If you ask a close-ended question, follow it up with an open-ended one

In some cases, you can add value to a closed-ended question by following it with an open-ended one. For instance, when you ask if a customer likes a new product, following up with "why or why not?" gives you useful information for potential improvements.

If you have a specific product goal, you can change the answers by making both questions more targeted. For example, "Do you think the new product is easier to use?" can be followed with "What improvements would help?"

Use open-ended questions to start a conversation that provides added insight

Much of the value provided by open-ended questions comes in the form of insight from another perspective. Unexpected answers often contain creativity and vision that you wouldn't find elsewhere.

When answers from open-ended questions generate usable ideas, they can help propel business growth.

Examples of open-ended questions

It can be challenging to develop the right open-ended questions for your audience. Questions that are too vague are likely to lead to answers that offer little useful information. Meanwhile, overly targeted questions can result in leading questions that generate formulaic responses.

So, what are good open-ended questions to ask customers? These five examples are easy to use in a variety of situations and can help you learn more about your customers.

  • What are the main reasons you chose our product/service?

  • How would you describe your experience with us?

  • What is the most important feature of our product/service? Why?

  • What changes would most improve our product?

  • What do you hope to get out of our product/service?

Open-ended questions can also be used in the workplace environment to improve company performance, develop new products and services, and improve the employee experience.

Consider how these questions can give you more insight into how your employees feel.

  • What can we do to improve employee retention?

  • How would you feel if we changed our benefits package?

  • How would you describe our workplace culture?

Open-ended questions like these can be used for innovative brainstorming sessions in the workplace.

  • What are the elements of a good team meeting?

  • What is the biggest flaw in our product?

  • What do you think is the best solution?

How to analyze the results from open-ended questions

Open-ended questions are designed to yield individual responses. While these answers can offer value, it's challenging to contextualize the answers of many people in a usable direction. 

Answers to open-ended questions shouldn’t represent large volumes of qualitative data because they can be more difficult to use than quantitative data. However, the right tools can help you uncover insights from large groups of data from all kinds of customer touchpoints.

Collect and structure your responses

It’s not best practice to use open-ended questions in a survey, but if the sample size is small enough or the right tools are used, it can be possible. The information you receive from your survey should be in a clear, structured format you can export as a CSV or Excel file.

If you don’t have the necessary tools to analyze large sample sizes, keep your sample sizes small, and group responses into categories with similar themes so they can be easily analyzed.

Use text analytics

Transforming the powerful contextual findings from qualitative studies into easily analyzable quantitative data points isn’t easy. In theory, you could read every response to categorize valuable data and eliminate irrelevant responses. However, this would take significant time and effort.

Luckily, automation can help you extract relevant data from open-ended questions. Different programs can be used to classify data from open-ended questions in various ways. For example:

  • Sentiment analysis classifies survey responses as positive, negative, or neutral

  • Aspect-based sentiment analysis further analyzes data to know what aspect of your product customers mention positively or negatively

  • Topic analysis classifies responses by category, topic, or feature

Visualize your results

Visualization tools allow you to see your survey results in the format that best fits your needs. The information derived from a survey can be used in different ways across multiple departments. However, creating multiple visuals manually from data derived from open-ended questions is demanding and time-consuming.

Insights platforms can help you display data in up to five different ways:

  • Boards

  • Canvas

  • Tables

  • Grids

  • Lists

With these options, you can use the same data to show detailed metrics to stakeholders in the form of tables and display targeted grids to the sales team.

In summary

Open-ended questions allow businesses to gather qualitative data across various target groups to improve company performance. Once you understand how these questions are used and the best ways to present them, you can use modern tools to analyze the information as easily as you analyze quantitative data.

Using multiple types of questions allows you to increase the amount and type of information you gather with each survey.

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