Comparing Closed-Ended and Open-Ended Questions

A key part of creating excellent online surveys is in the proper uses of both open-ended and closed-ended questions. First, we must look at the nature of both question types, their strengths and weaknesses, and when they should be used. So let’s jump right into things!

Closed-Ended Questions

Closed-ended questions come in a multitude of forms, but are defined by their need to have explicit options for a respondent to select from. There are a wide variety of closed-ended question types for survey creators to choose from, including: Multiple choice, semantic differential, drop down, check boxes, ranking, and many more. Each question type does not allow the respondent to provide unique or unanticipated answers, but rather, they have to choose from a list of pre-selected options. It’s like being offered spaghetti or hamburgers for dinner, instead of being asked “What would you like for dinner?”.

How to Use Closed-Ended Questions
Questions that are closed-ended are conclusive in nature as they are designed to create data that is easily quantifiable. The fact that questions of this type are easy to code makes them particularly useful when trying to prove the statistical significance of a survey’s results. Furthermore, the information gained by closed-ended questions allows researchers to categorize respondents into groups based on the options they have selected.

Demographic studies can illustrate a good use for closed-ended questions. Imagine that the manager of a designer clothing store believes that certain types of people are more likely to visit their store and purchase their clothing than others. To decipher which segment groups are most likely to be their customers, the manager could design a survey for anyone who has been a visitor. This survey could include closed-ended questions on gender, age, employment status, and any other demographic information they’d like to know. Then, it would be followed by questions on how often they visit the store and the amount of money they spend annually. Since all the questions are closed-ended, the store manager could easily quantify the responses and determine the profile of their typical customer. In this case, the manager may learn that her most frequent customers are female students, aged 18-25. This knowledge would allow her to move forward with an action plan on how to cater to this niche better or break into other target demographics.

The major drawback to closed-ended questions is that a researcher must already have a clear understanding of the topic of his/her questions and how they tie into the overall research problem before they are created. Without this, closed-ended questions will lead to insufficient options for respondents to select from, questions that do not properly reflect the research’s purpose, and limited or erroneous information.

For example, if I asked the question “Do you get to work by driving, busing, or walking?” I would have accidently omitted carpooling, biking, cartwheeling or any other form of transportation I am unaware of. Instead, it would have been better for me to ask the open-ended question of “How do you get to work?” to learn all the different types of answer before forcing the selection based on a list of several options.

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are exploratory in nature. As discussed with the “How do you get to work?” question, it allows for the respondent to provide any answer they choose without forcing them to select from concrete options.

How to Use Open-Ended Questions
Questions that are open-ended provide rich qualitative data. In essence, they provide the researcher with an opportunity to gain insight on all the opinions on a topic they are not familiar with. However, being qualitative in nature makes these types of questions lack the statistical significance needed for conclusive research. Nevertheless, open-ended questions are incredibly useful in several different ways:

1) Expert Interviews: Since questions that are open-ended ask for the critical thinking and uncut opinion of the respondent, they are perfect for gaining information from specialists in a field that the researcher is less qualified in. Example: If I wanted to learn the history of Ancient China (something I know very little about), I could create my survey for a selected group of historians whose focus is Ancient China. My survey would then be filled with broad open-ended questions that are designed to receive large amounts of content and provide the freedom for the expert to demonstrate their knowledge.

2) Small Population Studies: Open-ended questions can be useful for surveys that are targeting a small group of people because there is no need for complex statistical analysis and the qualitative nature of the questions will give you more valuable input from each respondent. The rule here is the group must be small enough for the surveyor to be able to read each unique response and reflect on the information provided. Example: A supervisor who is looking for performance feedback from his/her team of six employees. The supervisor would benefit more from questions that allow the respondents to freely answer rather than forcing them into closed-ended questions that will limit their responses.

3) Preliminary Research: As stated in the closed-ended questions section, conclusive research usually requires preliminary research to be conducted in order to design the appropriate research objects, survey structure and questions. Open-ended questions can reveal to the surveyor a variety of opinions and behaviours among the population that they never realized. It is therefore, incredibly useful to use open-ended questions to gain information for further quantitative research.

4) A Respondent Outlet: It is usually a good idea in any survey, no matter how large, to leave an open-ended comments question at the end. This is especially in the case of a survey asking closed-ended questions on attitudes, opinions, or behaviours. Forcing respondents to answer closed-ended questions asks them to fit in your box of options and can leave them with extra information or concerns that they want to share with you. Providing respondents with the outlet of a comment box is showing them the respect they deserve for taking the time to fill out your survey.

There are a few drawbacks to open-ended questions as well. Though respondent answers are almost always richer in quality, the amount of effort it takes to digest the information provided can sometimes be overwhelming. That is why open-ended questions work best in studies with smaller populations. Furthermore, if your survey sample is a fraction of the population you are studying, you will be looking to find data which can be inferred on the overall population as statistically significant. Unfortunately, open-ended questions cannot be used in this manner, as each response should be seen as a unique opinion.

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  • Elesegern says:

    Thank you so much for these. So useful to my project right now. I had no idea how difficult it would be to design a survey until I started trying. This helps immensely.

  • Brad Peloquin says:

    Rick, what is your opinion of utilizing NVivo in the analysis of short response open-ended questions gathered from a large survey population? (in the thousands) Is there value in attempting to include open-ended short answer in surveys where a large response rate is possible?

    • RickPenwarden says:

      Hey Brad!

      That’s a good question! Today we have several applications and software tools that can help provide data analysis and attempt to organize large amounts of open-ended questions. Whether it is NVivo or FluidSurvey’s word cloud analysis function in reporting, these tools allow the researcher to make better sense of text responses they collected. They are especially useful when you have thousands of responses!

      However, beyond identifying common trends in your responses that require further research, it is impossible to infer these results statistically on your target population because each response must be considered unique in nature.

      In the end, my answer is ‘Yes’ the responses collected by the short answer question is still useful in a large survey population, but only for identifying trends and opinions for further analysis. Let’s say we asked our clients what they would like to see improved most on our website, and our word cloud analysis identified the top three used words: 1) Navigation, 2) Quality of Information 3) Visual Displays. We can then use these three topics as our main focus in a new survey that will look to quantify people’s issues with the website with closed-ended questions.

      Thanks for taking the time to read Brad! Always fun to discuss marketing research strategies!

  • Jasmine says:

    Hi, thank you for your write up. Very insightful . I am currently using open ended interviews being that i am doing an exploratory study. I am really finding it hard to present these results for my chapter four. Pls advice. Thank you,

    • RickPenwarden says:

      Hi Jasmine,
      Exploratory research is qualitative in nature. When presenting exploratory information in general, you want to represent it as snap shots of different people’s feelings. Try showing some of the perspectives of your topic or issue that were surprising to you. Also, look for common themes in your respondents’ comments. If you are interviewing professionals on a given topic, it may be best to present the information as what you learned or the consensus of their input.
      Hope this helps!

  • Pou Lin says:

    Thank you so much, it improved my understand in this topic

  • Aswathy says:

    Hi. Is it easier to use the Content analysis or Thematic analysis as a tool of data analysis? It’s my minor project and the first time I am doing one, so I was wondering which would be easier since I have time constraints.
    Thank you.

    • RickPenwarden says:

      Hi Aswathy!

      Research is as difficult as you make it. Since you are doing qualitative research, try using our word cloud analysis tool. Here’s a link on how to use it in our reporting section:

      If you are not using FluidSurveys, then my best advice would be to base your analysis on the type of information you are gathering. Can you categorize your responses effectively or are you looking for specific quotes to use in your report? Your type of analysis should be based on your research goals not the ease of its implementation.

      Hope this helps!

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