The differences between open-ended questions vs closed

Updated 22 December 2022

Researchers and interviewers ask a lot of questions in the course of their work. Asking questions is an essential part of collecting information and data. Understanding the difference between open-ended questions versus closed questions can help you conduct more effective surveys and interviews. In this article, we define open-ended and close-ended questions, look at how each type of question works in different circumstances and set out examples of how to use them.

Why ask open-ended questions vs closed?

The main reason for using open-ended questions vs closed questions is that open-ended questions allow for much more detail and a free flow of information. Close-ended questions are more restrictive and lead to limited answers. If you work as a researcher or interviewer, it's easy to focus on the information you hope to find out, rather than on how you ask the question. Yet the way you phrase your questions has a huge impact on the answers you receive.

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What are open-ended questions?

Open-ended questions allow respondents to answer in a free-form way. They can use their own words to express themselves. They can answer based on their understanding of a situation and go into much more detail about their knowledge or their feelings. Their responses aren't a set of options that only require limited answers.

Open-ended questions provide the respondent with the opportunity to share much more information. The interviewer may find that their question leads to knowledge and data that they hadn't anticipated. The interviewee has the chance to share their motivations for acting in a certain way. They may reveal their hopes and fears and provide new themes that you hadn't thought of.

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What are close-ended questions?

Close-ended questions are questions that can result in a 'yes' or 'no' answer, or an answer picked from a very narrow selection of possibilities. Researchers use close-ended questions to find out specific information on a particular subject. Examples of close-ended questions are multi-choice surveys where the respondent can choose from a tight set of answers (for example, A, B, C, or 'none of the above).

Close-ended questions are more useful in the following survey formats:

  • multiple choice

  • drop-down menu

  • rank order selection

  • check box selection

When to use open-ended questions

Whether you choose to ask open-ended or close-ended questions depends on the type of information you're looking for. Here are some examples of situations that call for open-ended questions:

Qualitative research

Open-ended questions form an elemental part of qualitative market research. Open-ended questions allow you to probe deeper into the reasons behind a respondent's answer. You can gain far more detail and valuable information about the topic in question. Respondents are free to answer subjectively.

Qualitative data is the type of information collected through in-person interviews or telephone interviews. Typically, you would collect this data by organising focus groups. When a researcher is asking open-ended questions in a face-to-face or telephone interview, the respondent's answers can lead to more questions from the interviewer.

Market research

When conducting market research where in-depth answers are essential, open-ended questions lead to more details and information. These types of questions elicit more colourful answers. Giving respondents the ability to answer in their own words empowers them to provide the type of answer they want. They may feel that their opinions matter more if they're able to express them freely.

Job interviews

Interviewers ask job applicants open-ended questions to allow them to talk about themselves. These types of questions allow hiring managers to evaluate an interviewee's communication skills. They help the candidate open up and go into more detail about their experience and key skills.

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Journalists use open-ended questions to gather more extensive information and collect interesting quotes. When writing features, articles and profiles, journalists use open-ended questions so the interviewee has the freedom to answer in their voice, using their language. This type of questioning is essential for gathering facts and details and for finding out new information.

Benefits of open-ended questions

Researchers use open-ended questions when they conduct field studies, surveys and interviews. Open-ended questions allow respondents to supply novel information and provide elaborate answers. You allow respondents the freedom to say what they think. Allowing people to answer in their own words can give them a sense of empowerment.

If you're using a survey to find out, for example, what customers think about your company, they may complain about poor customer experience, but equally, they may use the opportunity to write about how great they think your business is. Open-ended questions enable you to gather quotes that you can use in customer reviews. Respondents may use the 'other' option to give you information that you hadn't thought of before.

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Examples of open-ended questions

Start an open-ended question with one of the 'five w's', such as 'what', 'when', 'where', 'which' and 'who'. Another way to ask this category of question is to start with 'how'. The idea is to get your respondent to write one or two sentences or even a paragraph for their answer.

Here are some examples of open-ended questions, some of which include multiple sentences:

  • Why did you visit our website today?

  • How could we improve our online store?

  • Why did you choose this product? Would you recommend this product to a friend?

  • How do you feel about our new range of environmentally friendly cleaning products? Is there anything you would change?

  • Where did you first hear about us? If a member referred you to our store, please include a referral code below to receive an extra discount on your next purchase.

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When to use close-ended questions

The major advantage of close-ended questions is that you can collect quantitative data. This is information that researchers turn into percentages, graphs and other visual statistics, such as graphs. These situations usually call for the use of close-ended questions:

Surveys and questionnaires

Close-ended questions are useful for surveys when the aim is to gather numerical or quantitative data. Researchers looking for statistical analysis use close-ended questions in surveys, questionnaires or polls. You may find you get more people taking part in a survey if they can simply answer 'yes' or 'no' or tick a box against the right answer. This means they don't spend too long devising an answer to a question, or use valuable time typing out a full response.

Mobile polls

Since closed-ended questions don't require written answers, they're ideal to use in a poll designed for a mobile phone. Mobile survey apps can be an effective way to ask questions to large groups of people. Some apps allow optimised ways to review answers and can present close-ended question results in graphs or charts. In this instance, close-ended questions are a quick and efficient way of gathering information.

Likert scale

A Likert scale is a way of measuring attitudes. The respondent uses a five or seven-point scale to express how much they agree or disagree with a particular statement. This type of survey uses closed-ended questions to measure people's approaches to the topic of the survey. For example, if a restaurant is collecting feedback about its service, it might use facial expressions to show strong agreement or disagreement.

Example: How would you rate our menu choice today?

The customer then places a tick against a selection of faces, from extremely happy to sad. The happy face indicates 'excellent' and the sad face indicates 'poor choice'.

Benefits of closed questions

Closed questions can be a more efficient way of conducting research. Since it takes more time to analyse qualitative or primary data and less time to sort out the simple answers gathered in quantitative surveys, many companies prefer closed questions. These types of questions may also be easier for respondents, as they don't need to give too much thought to their answers.

Researchers can compile their findings from close-ended questions into graphs and charts. This makes the job of analysing data simpler. Prompting participants to give specific and strict answers provides clearer results.

Examples of close-ended questions

Close-ended questions don't require participants to give elaborate answers. They may start with phrases like 'how often', 'how much', 'do you', 'how many' and 'did you'. Because close-ended questions have pre-written answers, they usually ask a single question. Here are some examples:

  • How many times do you visit our store per month?

  • Have you visited this attraction before?

  • How much time do you spend on the internet per day?

  • Did you find everything you were looking for today?

  • Would you recommend our hotel to a friend?

  • Will you be attending the circuit training session next week?


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