How to ask open-ended questions

A complete guide to open-ended questions in surveys.

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When you’re planning your next survey, you’re probably thinking first about all the juicy data and numbers you can get from your survey respondents. Hard numbers and definitive answers are great–they are easy to collect in surveys with closed-ended questions, and the concrete data you get from them is easy to analyze, track, and measure. 

But surveys aren’t only about getting quantitative data and responses on a scale from 1-5 or 1-10. You will also want to know why respondents feel the way they do in some surveys. 

Asking open-ended survey questions can get you that valuable qualitative data. Asking respondents why they answered a certain way or to explain a rating means they can offer you in-depth answers in their own words, and they might bring up things you hadn’t even considered before. 

Open-ended questions can help you see your data in a new light or bring nuance and depth to data trends you’re seeing. They lets you hear from customers, prospects, and other people directly. It’s powerful when it’s done correctly. 

That’s why in this guide, you’ll learn all about how to ask open-ended questions the right way. Let’s get started! 

What are open-ended questions? 

Before we get into how to ask these kinds of questions, let’s start from the beginning with an open-ended question definition. Open-ended questions are a type of survey question that offer a blank space for respondents to answer a question by writing in their own answers. Closed-ended questions, on the other hand, ask respondents to pick from a selection of responses that you, the survey designer, have chosen. 

So what does “open-ended questions” mean? Simply put, it means you’re not directing your survey respondents to choose from an array of predetermined responses. Instead, you’re giving them space (literally and also figuratively) to open up in their own words and tell you directly what they’re thinking about a topic. 

Open-ended questions are a very valuable part of a Voice of the Customer program. They help you hear directly from your customers and prospects about their needs, their desires, what they like about your company, and what they’d like to see improved. 

What is an example of an open-ended question? 

So now that you know what the concept of an open-ended question is, what do they look like in real surveys? There are plenty of open-ended question examples you can draw from to create your own when you’re designing your survey. 

Net Promoter Score® 

One great example of an open-ended question comes from the Net Promoter Score (NPS) system survey. The first, and primary, question in the NPS survey asks customers to choose how likely they are to recommend you to friends or colleagues on a scale from 0-10. 

This first question is a closed-ended one, offering numerical data you can analyze to spot trends and compare your business’s score to industry benchmarks. 

But the following question is also vitally important: “What is the primary reason for your score?” This question is followed by an open-text answer box, where respondents can offer their own words to explain why they rated you the way they did. 

Since you’re not prompting them or directing them with answer options, you can get a real customer perspective on the issues that matter most to them. 

Customer Effort Score (CES)

Another effective measure of your customer experience comes from your Customer Effort Score survey. This type of survey begins with a closed-ended question asking customers to agree or disagree with this statement: “[Company Name] made it easy for me to handle my issue.” Your respondents can choose from seven answer choices, ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7). 

Next, you need to find out why customers think your company is difficult (or easy) to do business with. Adding in an open-ended question like: “What would make your experience with [Company Name] easier?” for respondents who rated you poorly can surface issues that are dragging down your CES and your overall customer satisfaction. 

Other surveys 

You can add in an open-ended question option to almost any kind of survey and it’s most often a good idea. At the end of a longer or more detailed survey full of multiple-choice questions, for example, you can add an open-ended question box to ask respondents questions like: 

  • Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today? 

  • Is there anything else that could have improved your experience with our company? 

  • Do you have any additional thoughts on our products/services? 

  • What changes would our company need to make for you to give an even higher rating? 

  • Please share any other information you’d like us to know. 

  • What would make you use our product/service again? 

  • How did you feel about our customer service? 

  • How would you describe your experience with us? 

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

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

These examples are just a starting point. Feel free to tailor them to your own survey purposes so they fit your respondent base as well as your survey goals. 

Why are open-ended questions important? 

Open-ended questions allow you to get a deeper customer perspective or insight into your survey respondents’ views. You might think that your Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) score alone will tell you how well you’re providing a thoughtful, delightful customer experience because it gives you a definitive number. And your CSAT score is certainly an important part of your overall customer satisfaction metrics.

But you won’t know why customers rated your business the way they did unless you ask them directly. You might make assumptions when you get that CSAT data and think: “it must be our website since we’re designing a new software feature they don’t understand or our recent price rise, etc”, but assumptions are very often incorrect. 

And if you make changes to the way you run your business or service your company based on assumptions alone, you could be making a very expensive mistake. 

Asking your customer for elaboration on their ratings in their own words gives you accurate, actionable insights you can use to improve any area of your business. And that’s why open-ended questions are important. 

The downsides of open-ended questions

However, while open-ended questions are key to include in many–even most–surveys, they’re not a silver bullet for every single survey type or goal. They do have a few drawbacks and downsides you should be aware of before you design your own survey. 

  • They don’t give you quantitative data. While you can survey a large population with closed-ended questions and make inferences from that data, each open-ended response is unique and needs to be viewed that way. That means it’s harder to see large trends. 

  • They can skew your interpretation of data. If you get three open-ended responses that mention their dislike of a certain feature in your products, it’s easy to start seeing that as a major trend you need to address. But it could just be three very vocal people out of 3,000 highly satisfied customers. Before making changes based on trends in your open-ended responses, it’s best to follow up with quantitative data surveys to confirm a trend is real. 

  • They’re more work for your respondents. If you’re surveying a whole bunch of people who have very little connection to your company, they’re probably not willing to put a lot of effort into answering your survey. Multiple-choice questions are very easy to complete, but answering open-ended questions takes more thought and time–and those less-connected respondents might not be willing to take that time. 

  • They’re more work for you. Open-ended questions create more work for the survey sender as well. You can pop data from closed-ended questions into sophisticated charts, add it into analytics software, and easily track trends over time. But the feedback from open-ended responses needs to be read carefully, and the time it takes to digest and analyze the data from a large survey can be a bit overwhelming. 

  • They’re not very mobile-friendly. As people use their mobile devices for more and more tasks these days, designing mobile-optimized surveys that can be taken in a few minutes on the go is important. But by their nature, open-ended questions are less mobile-friendly because it takes much more effort to type out a few thoughtful sentences on a phone screen than on a computer. 

These drawbacks aren’t meant to deter you from including open-ended questions in your surveys. But you should have a clear view of the downsides before you add them into your next survey so you know what to expect and what you’re getting into. 

Good open-ended questions

Not all open-ended questions are created equal. Certain kinds of open questions are more useful than others for getting certain kinds of insights and data. Let’s look at a few illustrative examples to understand the difference. 

Align to the goal of your survey

What kind of information and insights are you hoping to gain from sending this particular survey? For example, if you’re looking to measure your customer satisfaction, you will be sending your survey to figure out what your business is doing to satisfy customers and what it’s doing to irritate or frustrate them. 

An appropriate open-ended question in that kind of survey, therefore, should ask about those topics. You can ask your customers: “What one action would increase your satisfaction with our company/product/service?” 

Ask about the what and the why 

The goal of asking open-ended questions is also to gain deeper insight into what customers and respondents feel, and why they feel that way. So be sure your survey questions address those vital questions as well. 

You can include what and why directly in your open-ended questions if you want to be very clear. “What do you think about our product?” “Why do you think that?” It seems so simple that it’s almost too easy, but it’s very effective. 

How to ask open-ended questions

Writing good open-ended questions can be more challenging than it looks at first. The way you ask a question often determines the kind of answer you get back in response, so learning how to write open-ended questions is important. Here are a few of our top tips for asking good open-ended questions. 

  • Avoid questions that will yield a one-word answer. If most of your respondents will just type “yes” or “no” in response to your question, it’s not going to be very effective at getting you unique insights. Instead, ask them why they feel a certain way or what their experience was. That means avoiding questions like: “Did you enjoy your experience with our company?” Ask instead: “What did you enjoy about your experience with our company?” 

  • Keep the question broad. The whole point of asking open-ended questions is to give your respondents open space to share anything they want–so don’t write your questions to focus too narrowly on one thing. Those kinds of focused questions are better as closed-ended ones so you can get quantitative data on a specific topic. 

  • Make the open-ended questions optional. Not everyone who answers your survey is going to have the time or the desire to write you a long, deeply insightful comment. And that’s okay! But you don’t want those people to drop out of your survey entirely, because their multiple-choice answers might be valuable as well. By making your open-ended questions optional, you’ll give space to the people who want to answer while giving time back to the people who don’t–and both will complete the rest of your survey. 

Worried about writing open-ended survey questions? Don’t be–you just need to avoid the seven deadly survey sins when you’re writing your questions. Most of the guidelines for writing good closed-ended questions apply to open-ended questions as well: use clear language, avoid confusing wording, and don’t try to lead your respondents to answer in a certain way. Follow these rules and you won’t lose. 

How to analyze open-ended questions 

Now comes the trickiest part of asking open-ended questions: analyzing the responses you get back. A huge multiple-choice survey with thousands of respondents can be significantly simpler to analyze than just a small open-ended survey. That’s because each open-ended answer is unique–you can’t put those responses into a nice, tidy Excel spreadsheet and understand what’s going on immediately. 

Asking open-ended questions is also one of the factors that lower your survey response rates. Not everyone who takes your survey is going to take the time to write out a response. It’s a portion of a smaller population, typically, and so understanding how those results correlate to a larger group can be challenging. 

Introducing GetFeedback’s Text Analytics 

This challenge is why we’re excited to introduce the Text Analytics feature within GetFeedback’s real-time dashboards. Text Analytics helps you get a firm grasp on your open-ended feedback responses with an actionable, organized view of customer commentary and sentiment. 

How does Text Analytics perform this feat? It looks at your customer comments in real time and filters and finds the phrases and keywords that matter most. You have total control over your feedback filters–by frequency, sentiment, or the latest trends. And the result is a high-level summary you can grasp in seconds, instead of spending hours sorting manually through your customer feedback. 

Plus, we’ve pre-built Text Analytics dashboards for you, so you can start using this powerful tool right out of the box without spending valuable time toggling with filters and options if you want to get started right away. 

And you’ll have confidence that our text analysis is always on point, because we use Google Cloud Platform’s Natural Language API to pull insights from comment text. 

GetFeedback’s Text Analytics makes understanding and acting on your open-ended question responses easy, fast, and effective. That means you can include these insightful question options in more and larger surveys, because you’ll feel confident you have the right tools to gather and analyze every valuable piece of feedback your respondents have generously given to you. 

You’ll understand your customers and respondents better, while saving hours of time on data analysis.

Key takeaways 

Asking open-ended questions in surveys allows your respondents to tell you exactly what they’re feeling, and explain why they’re feeling that way. That kind of feedback is extremely valuable for every business and will allow you to create a richer, more satisfying customer experience from the beginning of the customer journey right until the end. With well-written open-ended questions, you’ll be on the way to getting piles of detailed, insightful feedback. 

But the journey doesn’t stop there. You need to analyze and understand the feedback your customers and respondents have so thoughtfully provided. And that’s a significant challenge with open-ended questions, where every response is unique. 

That’s why GetFeedback is excited to introduce Text Analytics. Your customer experience surveys have never been more powerful, or your data more clear. 

Learn how GetFeedback can help you exceed customers’ expectations—start your free trial today.

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*Net Promoter, Net Promoter System, Net Promoter Score, NPS and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.