Career Development

What Are Open Ended Questions? A Complete Guide

June 29, 2021

Open ended and close ended questions serve very different purposes and generate different kinds of responses. You may have faced these questions as part of surveys, retail experiences, casual conversation and job interviews. It is important to know how to use and respond to these questions in an effective manner. In this article, we will discuss open ended questions and their characteristics with examples and learn how these questions are used during sales and negotiation.

What are open ended questions?

Open-ended questions, also commonly called subjective questions, are questions that cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no". They typically demand longer answers and require the respondent to go into detailed descriptions.

Example: What is your opinion on the quality of our services?

Open-ended questions are used to get an understanding of the responder's subjective perspective. The questioner can get nuanced feedback and a rich pool of honest opinions from the respondents, which can be analysed later using spreadsheets and data visualisation tools and techniques.

Open ended vs. close ended questions

These are some fundamental differences between open ended and close ended questions:

  • Close ended questions (also commonly called objective questions) provide respondents with pre-defined answers like "yes" or "no" or values on a rating scale. These questions come with a list of set answers that the respondent has to choose from. Example: Please rate the quality of our services: (1) Excellent (2) Good (3) Satisfactory (4) Poor (5) Very Poor
  • Close ended questions provide limited insights, and typically come to use in situations where a large number of answers can be analysed together to get some quantitative data. Open ended questions, on the other hand, can be used to get unique responses from each respondent. They can be analysed to generate qualitative data.
  • Close ended questions allow the surveyor/questioner to extrapolate data and look at trends and percentages. Open ended questions allow the surveyor to look at contexts, nuances and subjective opinions.
  • In research contexts, open ended questions are used to get rich information from smaller sample sizes. Close ended questions should ideally be answered by larger sample sizes to generate any sort of useful quantitative information. For instance, you may get good qualitative information from 5 respondents if you craft your open ended questions appropriately. This is not possible for close ended questions as the sample size becomes too small to provide any definitive information.

Using the 2 examples given above in this article,

The first question, being open ended, allows the respondent to talk about how the quality of the service personally affected them. The question encourages them to go into details of their user experience and lay out information specific to their case.

The second question, which comes with a rating scale, is close ended. The surveyor can have 100 respondents answer the question to understand what percentage of their customers like or dislike the service and also to what extent.

Related: Types of Graphs and Charts

Characteristics of open ended questions

These are some basic characteristics that all open ended questions have:

  • They are free-form survey questions, meaning their answers will be descriptive.
  • They allow users to respond in open text format, instead of using pre-defined keywords or options.
  • They allow users to probe their complete knowledge and understanding, if necessary.
  • They can generate detailed information about the subject at hand.
  • They account for nuance and subjectivity.

Related: Customer Satisfaction: How To Measure and Tips for Improvement

10 examples of open ended vs. close ended questions

Here are 10 commonly used open ended questions and their close ended variants:

  • Open ended: What specifically persuaded you to choose our product/service?
    Close ended: Would you choose our product/service?
  • Open ended: What qualities of our product/service would you tell your friends about?
    Close ended: Would you recommend our product/service to your friends?
  • Open ended: What are the differences between our product/service and that of our competitors?
    Close ended: Is our product/service different from that of our competitors?
  • Open ended: How was your experience with our product/service?
    Close ended: Did you have a good experience with our product/service?
  • Open ended: How can we assist you in making a purchase decision?
    Close ended: Can we assist you in making a purchase decision?
  • Open ended: How can we improve this product/service?
    Close ended: Can we improve this product/service?
  • Open ended: How did you come across our product/service?
    Close ended: Did you come across our product/service on your own?
  • Open ended: What queries do you have about our product/service?
    Close ended: Do you have any queries about our product/service?
  • Open ended: What are open ended questions**?
    Close ended: Do you know what open ended questions are**?
  • Open ended: How can we improve our customer service?
    Close ended: Can we improve our customer service in some way?

What words do open ended questions begin with?

Open ended questions typically begin with the words like "what," "how" or "why." These words encourage the respondent to go into details and provide descriptive information. In comparison, close ended questions typically begin with phrases like "would/will you," "did/do you," "were/are you" and "have you." They require respondents to reply concisely, usually from a set of pre-determined options. Close ended questions may also carry a reference to some grading scale, like "On a scale of 1-10" or "from strongly agree to strongly disagree."

How to ask an open ended question

If you want to ask an open ended question, consider the following things:

  1. Before you ask an open ended question, try and identify the exact intent of your query and what kind of responses you are looking for. Once you are clear about the intent of your question, try to frame it accordingly. For example, the questions “What did you like about our service?”, “How did you like our service?” and “Why did you choose our particular service?” will generate fairly different answers. The first one will prompt a user to identify features that appeal to them. The second one is more casual and will give you a general idea of the quality of their user experience. The third one will help you identify your USP or Unique Selling Point.
  2. Ask a mixture of open ended and close ended questions. Both have their unique benefits and purposes. It is good practice to start with a close ended question and follow it up with an open ended one. For example, start with “Did you like our service/product?” to get a binary answer (Yes/No) and then follow it up with “Why did you like/dislike our product/service?” to get further details.
  3. You can turn almost all close ended questions into open ended ones, with slight re-wording and changes in the sentence structure. For example, the close ended question “Can I help you today?” can be turned into the open ended one “How can I help you today?”. The second question is more welcoming for the respondent and can make you appear more approachable.

From a respondent's perspective, close ended questions are easier to answer and do not demand much cognitive load. Open ended questions, on the other hand, will require respondents to dedicate some time and effort to generate an answer. Ensure that open ended questions are used only when absolutely necessary.

Related: How To Improve Communication Skills

How can you use open ended questions in sales and negotiation?

Open ended questions are very important from a sales perspective. This is because they let you understand client/user experience in detail and then make necessary changes in appropriate domains. For example, the question “Did you like our product?” gives very little into the user experience. On the other hand, the question “What did you like about our product?” will allow the respondent to clarify what particular features they found useful. They may also be able to point out other features where there is room for improvement.

In any negotiation, open ended questions can give respondents ample control over their responses. Negotiations become open and smooth when your options to respond are not limited. For example, consider a sales situation where a customer likes a product but is not sure if they can afford it. The question, “Do you want to look at something that is more within your price range?” will almost always result in the customer downgrading their choice. However, the question, “How can I help you make this purchase decision?” opens up possibilities to work out a situation in which both parties may benefit.

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