Open-ended questions: What are they, how, where, when and why to use them in online surveys?

Creating an online survey requires making some important decisions. All the details are part of the success of an online survey.

Creating an online survey requires making some important decisions. From the design, tone and style, to the images and the videos that will be included, all the details are part of the success of an online survey.

However, the most critical aspect when collecting valuable information lies on the questions we include. As we have already commented on some other posts, the key is to consult only the fair and necessary. If the survey is too long, the respondent will abandon it. On the contrary, if it's too short, the information gathered will not be enough to know the user's opinion.

Now well, with regard to the questions, a very important issue when writing them is the decision of the type of format we will use. In this sense, an essential element to create online forms which produce valuable results is to use open and closed questions in an efficient way.  

"Open questions have an “exploratory” objective and are used to obtain qualitative information; they seek to gain an insight of all the opinions on a subject that is not known in depth".
What are open questions (and what are closed questions)?

Let's begin by defining this distinction between types of questions.

Closed questions are the easiest to solve for the user as they present alternative pre-established answers, before which the respondent is forced to choose one. The most common closed questions are multiple choice; although other types exist, such as multiple image and ranking.

In any case, they have the exclusive feature of preventing the respondent from providing unique or unanticipated responses, since they must select from a list of previously selected options.

On the other extreme, open questions have an “exploratory” objective and are used to obtain qualitative information. In general, online surveys use them when they seek to gain an insight of all the opinions on a subject that is not known in depth. Also known as “Short answer”, with this resource you'll be able to add a textbox to ask respondents for a written response to your query.

How to use open questions?

By definition, open questions require the respondent to contribute with critical thinking and express their opinions.  This is why they are a good alternative for obtaining information when we want to consult on a topic about which we do not know.

This way, we recommend their use, for example, to understand better how the consumer thinks and feels.  For example, if you own a clothes brand whose target audience is centennials (women from 13 to 18 years old) but you are not part of that population, you can use them to understand better the logic of that group.  Therefore, an open question to find out the tastes of this group and define your customer persona can be “Describe what a perfect day is like for you”. 

Additionally, open questions are of great utility when they accompany questions such as “How was your experience” or another call to action that generates a confession about whether the user has a negative experience.  This way, you can dig into why the consumer has had that bad experience or why they have evaluated it that way.

Why do open questions serve as preliminary research?

Another advantage that open questions come with is that they can help you discover a menu of opinions and behaviours that you didn't anticipate before distributing the survey. This is why you can use them to obtain information that will let you carry out future quantitative research.

In other words, open questions function as a kind of “pre-survey” on which we can iterate to improve the online survey with new questions that we had not previously imagined.  For example, back to the clothing case, if respondents answer that their perfect day is a day on their own, without the presence of their parents, you can ask them about the concept of freedom and what it represents for them.

In what parts of the survey is it convenient to use open questions?

You can add open questions in different moments of the online survey. It is always positive to offer a space for the user to express in his own words.  

Why is it important?  When a form includes closed questions about attitudes, opinions or behaviours, it is very valuable to allow the consumer to express himself freely. In other words, if you force them to answer closed multiple choice questions, you run the risk that the respondent will not be able to share other concerns or information with you.

In general, we recommend it as a good practice to include an open question at the end of the survey. Something simple like “Would you like to add anything else?” which opens a way for respondents to share their point of view, without constraints or word count, as a closing method.  

This is why, if you offer them a place to express themselves through comment boxes, you'll be demonstrating that their opinion is being taken into account and you'll be also giving them space to share what they think and feel after having taken the time to answer the survey.

How to analyze open questions? 

Although answers to open questions can provide us with valuable information it is also true that they demand a much higher level of effort for analyzing the obtained information. This task can become overwhelming.  

While a closed response can simply be quantified and tabulated to draw conclusions, categorizing responses can be a hard task. How to extract valuable information from a form with open questions that was answered in a massive way?

To solve this challenge, we recommend using a tool called “word cloud” or “word map”, which is used to visualize the main answer to open questions and sketch an interpretation of the results.

This resource is vital to clearly appreciate the terms most repeated by users and it will also allow you to know how they express and manifest themselves with respect to your brand, product or service.

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