Open-Ended Survey Questions

Making the right choice between open-ended and closed survey questions, allows you to get the data that best serves the goal of your customer, employee or market research survey.

The difference matters because, when you’re designing a survey to collect feedback from customers or employees, the type of questions you use influences the type of answers you get and the insights that you can gain.

Let’s look at when, how and why you’d want to use open-ended questions.

1) Allows an infinite number of possible answers

The big plus of an open-ended question is that you’re not placing any limits on the response. This means that your survey respondents can tell you anything that they feel is appropriate as well as anything else they want you to know. Closed questions, on the other hand, limit the possible responses options.

2) Collect more detail

Open-ended questions give your respondents the freedom and space to answer in as much detail as they like. Extra detail really helps to qualify their responses, generating more accurate information and insight for you.

3) Learn something unexpected

All this freedom to give any answer, of any length and with any level of detail, means that you’ll sometimes discover something completely unique and unexpected among your survey responses. Whether it’s a process innovation that’ll save the company money or a marketing concept with the potential to boost your brand, these unanticipated answers can be extremely valuable.

4) Get comprehensive answers to complex issues

Sometimes an open-ended question is the only way to collect the answers that you need. In a situation that requires contextualisation, complex description and explanation, a simple Yes/No or multiple-choice answer just won’t cut it. When you’re asking someone to explain a decision or report a problem, for example, open-ended questions tend to work best.

5) Encourage creative answers and self-expression

Given room to express freely, some respondents will surprise you with their eloquence and creativity. An open-ended question frees respondents to convey their feedback and ideas to you in their own voice.

6) Understand how your respondents think

Free-form written answers reveal a great deal about the workings of the respondent’s mind. From the essential logic of their reasoning and the steps in their thinking process to their language choices and frame of reference, there’s a huge amount you can learn from reading their thoughts in their own words.

7) Ask without knowing

The big problem with closed questions is that to design them into your survey, you’ll need to know roughly what answers you expect. If you’re testing a hypothesis, for example, it’s easy enough to come up with appropriate answer options that will support or refute it. But using open-ended questions lets you explore topics you don’t yet know enough about to form a hypothesis.

When to use closed questions?

1) Keep analysis easy

Comparison, correlation and statistical analysis are much more difficult when every response is a freeform answer to an open-ended question. If you don’t have the time or the manpower to read every word of every answer, interpret them, and code them consistently for analysis, stick to closed questions unless there’s a good reason to go open-ended.

2) Don’t torture your respondents

When faced with an open-ended question and a large blank space into which to insert their answer, respondents can feel intimidated or disheartened. Answering an open question takes more time, thought and effort than ticking a few radio buttons, and your survey respondents know it. Bear in mind that free-form written answers are easy for literate and articulate people, but some respondents may struggle more with this answer format than others.

3) Get the answers you need

Open-ended questions hand over all control of the response to the respondent. If your question doesn’t make clear exactly what information you’re looking for, your respondents may give only vague answers, or misinterpret your question and focus their answer on a side topic you didn’t intend to explore. The ever present risk of open-ended questions is that the responses may be inadequate or irrelevant to your research needs — or the one sentence that matters may be buried in a long and meandering response.

4) Balance your question types

If you’ve already hit your respondents with several open-ended questions in a survey, give them a break by keeping the survey short and making the remainder of your questions closed-ended. Respondents may enjoy the freedom to tell you exactly what they think, but they don’t want your survey to feel like an assignment.

5) Open answers versus open questions

Sometimes it isn’t the question itself that matters so much as the answer options you provide. If you ask what sounds like a closed question, but allow free-form responses, you’ll still get additional information from some of your respondents. For example, a simple Yes/No answer can become “Yes, but…” or “No, and…” when the respondent has more to say on the topic.


First of all, think through what you are going to do. Each time you create a survey question, remember the advantages and disadvantages of making it open-ended or closed. Know when you’ll need quantifiable answers for statistical analysis, and when you’ll benefit from giving your respondents greater freedom to express themselves

Second of all, act. Send your surveys and analyze your responses. Share reports with everyone who needs them and plan your next steps.

Thirdly, check survey opening and completion rates to see if your new approach to open-ended questions or closed has made any difference to your respondents’ behaviour.


To see for yourself how our enterprise feedback platform can get data that best serves the goal of your customer, employee or market research survey. Sign up for a Precision Feedback demo.



This post is originally from the Questback blog.