The Benefits and Challenges of Open-Ended Survey Questions

Open Ended SurveyYour survey is only as good as the questions you use, and you have two main types from which to choose. Closed-ended questions provide respondents to a specific lineup of responses, asking them to pick one of the available answers. Open-ended survey questions give participants the freedom to respond to and comment on whatever issues come to mind related to the question.

The most effective surveys will carefully balance both types of questions, providing the meaningful insights the survey was designed to gather. Even more care is required when it comes to creating and analyzing open-ended questions, as they present a number of challenges that must be met for their full benefits to be reaped.

Challenge No. 1: When to Use Them

Opening your survey with open-ended questions may be a surefire way to scare away participants. Open questions should instead be strategically placed throughout your questionnaire. You can use them to give participants an “other” response option if none of the pre-selected responses of a multiple choice questions apply, providing a text box for their answer.

You can also pair open questions with multiple choice closed questions to gather more information on why a participant responded the way they did. For instance, you can first ask about their level of customer service satisfaction, giving them multiple choices that range from “Excellent” to “Poor.” Your next question can be an open-ended inquiry that asks why they rated their satisfaction at that particular level.

Challenge No. 2: The Time Factor 

Survey participants looking to zip through surveys will not appreciate open-ended questions. The questions require participants to literally think outside the box, devoting extra time and effort to their responses. All that thinking can also saddle you with loads of extraneous information that may have little to do with the topic at hand.

The longer participants spend on a specific survey, the higher their risk of fatigue. This can lead to them rushing through the remaining questions or abandoning the survey altogether. Open-ended questions are also time-consuming when it comes to analyzing the collected information, one more challenge that comes with the territory.

Challenge No. 3: Analyzing the Responses

You may be tempted to reach for any number of tools that promise to help with analysis of open-ended data, but they are unlikely to give you the same depth and accuracy as you get by manually analyzing the results. Consider using a bucketing technique for analysis, which can be achieved through the following steps.

  1. Read every single response. Here’s where your company will feel the time crunch, but it’s also where you’ll get a real feel for the data. You’ll also notice trends and have the opportunity to highlight quotes that can add spectacular insights.
  2. Create your buckets. Buckets are simply different categories into which you will place the various responses. Each bucket represents a trend you’ve identified, and some responses may contain multiple ideas that belong in multiple buckets.
  3. Examine and organize your buckets. Once you’ve placed each response in its appropriate bucket or buckets, review your buckets to see if any can be combined or need to be split. This gives you the chance to identify clear issues, trends and new ideas provided by participants.
  4. Pinpoint the meaning and the context of collected responses. Here you want to combine your open-ended responses with relevant close-ended responses to generate actionable data. Perhaps you ran across an “other” answer that outshines the offered responses in a single-select question. Or maybe you uncovered fresh information on why customers opt for your product or service.
  5. Sum it all up. Your final step is to create a summary of the major trends you’ve identified throughout your open-ended question analysis. Back up trends with key quotes you’ve highlighted and any relevant comments from survey participants. Those highlighted quotes can likewise come in handy for grabbing attention when presenting your findings to your audience, building personas and even in your mission statement.

Open-Ended Question Benefits

While analyzing open-ended responses ranks as a top challenges, it is also where your company will reap the greatest rewards. Rather than forcing participants into prefabricated responses, they are free to outline their specific feelings about you, your company and the topic at hand. Such precise feedback is extremely valuable to understand strengths, weaknesses and areas in which you can improve. You will likely uncover customer insights you never considered.

Participants also appreciate the opportunity to be as candid and honest as they wish. They have the freedom to respond exactly as they so choose, in their own words, knowing their opinions are going to be heard. This is a huge advantage over closed questions, which participants may perceive as being leading or even threatening. Closed questions can appear to discourage the truth, while open questions give participants a wide open field to rant, rave, rage or otherwise disclose how they really feel.

While the challenges of open-ended questions may appear at a glance to outweigh the benefits, that is rarely true. Open questions are one of the most effective ways to gather honest consumer opinions while giving your target audience an open forum to provide innovative suggestions and ideas that can only come from an outside source. A careful of balance of open and closed questions will help ensure your survey doesn’t too much time or effort on the part of the respondents while providing amazing insights your company can use to grow and improve.

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