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Research Best Practices: Designing Open-Ended Questions to Get Richer Answers

Crafting good open-ended survey questions is an art. Here are 3 simple tips and examples for writing great open-ended questions.

Upsiide Best Practices Open Ended Questions

Here’s a sample question for you:

Do you like this product?

  • Yes

  • No

This question works well if you want to see if people like your product. But it doesn’t really tell you what exactly respondents like about the product.

Enter: open-ended questions.

A card reading "Ask open ended questions"

What is an open-ended question?

Open-ended questions are questions that don’t have a one-word answer. Open-ended questions allow you to get the "why" behind the data because survey-takers can freely write their responses in their own words. 

Here are some open-ended questions examples:

Why do you feel this way about the product idea?

How would you improve this design?

As you can see, this type of question uses “why” and “how” to prompt people to describe something in a few words. Closed-ended questions, however, are a little more direct:

Would you recommend this product to your friends and family?

  • Yes

  • I don’t know

  • No

When choosing between open-ended vs. closed-ended questions, ask yourself - what kind of data do I want to get? 

Closed-ended questions give you easily quantifiable data because you collect the number of responses every person chooses. Open-ended questions, however, give you some more depth into the consumer’s minds, eliciting the real words they use to describe something. This kind of feedback allows you to get valuable information that you wouldn’t usually get from a closed-ended question.

How to write open-ended survey questions

Okay, so now we know that open-ended survey responses are a great way to collect verbatim consumer feedback and reaction to ideas. But how can you write these questions so that you get the most thoughtful, detailed answers?

Here is our guide to writing really good questions.

1. Add some context

You already know that respondents' feedback will be used to make critical decisions. But sometimes, they don’t know that. That’s why you should always add some business context to put them in the right frame of mind.

Instead of: “What do you dislike, if anything, about this package design?”

Consider: “This package design is still in development. Please help us make it better by telling us everything that you dislike or think might be improved.”

By learning the purpose of this question, the respondent can better understand that negative feedback will be used to make the package design better for everyone – this is empowering and motivating.

2. Be precise 

Sometimes you might think your question makes sense, but it turns out it’s not specific enough. Respondents might get confused about what you want from them, which might lead to straight up less useful answers. 

Instead of: “How do you feel about this list of ingredients?”

Consider: “In this list, are there any ingredients that you feel we should remove? If so, please tell us why you feel we should avoid these ingredients.”

In the new version, respondents read distinct elements you want them to engage with. Specific phrasing ensures that people don’t misinterpret your question in different ways, and pointed requests prevent short, un-elaborate responses, like “Looks good” or “I don’t like it.”

3. Ask one thing at a time

“What do you like about this package? What would you improve? Why and why not?”

It’s easy to get swayed by all the things that you want to ask in one question. Heck, if it were possible to ask people everything we want to know all at once, our job would be so much easier.

But the reality is that people can usually only focus on one thing at a time. 

Instead of: “Please list everything you like and dislike about this product. Explain why you like or dislike these ideas.”

Consider: “In the previous question, you said that you dislike the font choice on this package. How could we improve the font?”

Can you see that we kept the question within one topic in the improved version - the font on the package? That way, the question is more focused and easier to digest.

BTW, the original question is a double-barrelled question. We have some useful guidance on how to avoid these types of questions and write surveys like a pro. 

As you can see the improved version implies that a respondent already answered a single or multi-select question before. By adding “In the previous question, you said…”, we’re forcing the respondent to limit their answer to that particular question (also known as a forced question). 

Prefacing the open-end with a forced-choice question and using the open-end as an opportunity to elaborate is a great way to keep respondents engaged. The survey questions are customized to their earlier responses, which feels more like a two-way conversation.

This approach reduces the amount of effort required to answer thoughtfully and makes sure that people don’t feel overwhelmed by answering a super broad question. 

Open-ended questions open lots of survey opportunities

Now you know that open-ended questions can be really handy if done right. If you want to learn more about writing engaging surveys, this post is for you.