Questions help procure information about an event, situation, people, etc. During a job interview, questions help the interviewer learn about the interviewee’s skills, knowledge, ability, and experience. But the quality of the answers received or how a question gets answered hinges considerably on whether the question is ‘closed-ended’ or ‘open-ended’.
A closed-ended question seeks a definite answer. An open-ended question is open to interpretation and has no correct or wrong answer. Open-ended questions require more thoughtful and/or elaborative responses, while the answer to a closed-ended question could be as simple as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.
Keep reading to learn more about the two types of questions and understand when and why you should be using either of the two.
What are Closed-Ended Questions?
A closed-ended question is any question that provides response options, in the form of:
Closed-ended questions look for answers that provide specific information and test the knowledge of the respondent. The questioner, unlike the case with an open-ended question, has a fair idea of the likely responses to their questions and, therefore, pick and choose answers they believe could be used as response choices.
Closed-ended questions offer conclusive results since the data they help accumulate can be easily quantified or sorted.
Examples of Closed-Ended Questions
Closed-ended questions could be something like the following:
- May I use your bathroom?
- What is the time?
- Have you made up your mind on that?
- Do you want to become a pilot?
- Can we share the ice cream?
- Are you expecting a baby?
- Is he coming to the office tomorrow?
When to Use Closed-Ended Questions?
A set of closed-ended questions is almost ideal for surveys, as the response rates are higher, and analyzing or quantifying the answers received is also easy. Closed-ended questions should be typically used when:
- You need basic biographical information or some fast facts
- The objective is to quantify data
- You need conclusive information
- When your respondents aren’t very keen on your survey/questionnaire topic
- Respondents must be categorized
- There are too many participants
- The research work has already been done
When respondents are not particularly interested, open-ended questions work because they are easier to get done with compared to open-ended questions. In other words, the respondents need not manufacture an answer. They just have to pick an answer from the options already provided.
Drawbacks of Closed-Ended Questions
Closed-ended questions cannot be used to explore the respondent’s feelings or emotions. The questions limit the respondent’s ability to answer or restricts them to a specific set of predetermined answers, which could even create a bias in their minds. Let’s take a look at this closed-ended question, for example, “Which is the best smartphone in 2020?”. The answer choices provided are:
- Apple iPhone 11 Pro
- Samsung Galaxy S20
- Huawei P40 Pro
- Google Pixel 5
Though these phones are among the best in their class, they are not necessarily the only smartphones of their kind. With just four options to choose from, the respondent who doesn’t have much knowledge about smartphones may believe that the four phones are indeed among the top four and their job is only to find out which is the best among them.
For those not much familiar with the smartphone space, the LG V60 ThinQ, Xiaomi Mi 10 Pro, OnePlus 8 Pro, etc. are equally strong contenders for the “best 2020 smartphone” prize. Long story short, closed-ended questions can indirectly or directly influence the respondents’ thoughts and their answers.
Also, closed-ended questions require preliminary research, or you cannot put forth closed-ended questions on a topic you have no or little clue about. If you don’t know much about a topic, you may collect information about it through open-ended questions and then analyze the data collected and frame closed-ended questions.
What are Open-Ended Questions?
An open-ended question is a question that solicits a free-form response. Unlike a closed-end question, open-ended questions are exploratory or require more than just one-word responses. The responses are usually lengthier and in-depth. The answers could be a few sentences, a list, or something lengthier, like a paragraph, a speech, or even an essay.
Open-ended questions can stretch a conversation. They could help you learn new information about the subject under discussion. For instance, the person being questioned could share experiences and insights you were not expecting to know and cite behaviors and issues you had no idea about.
Examples of Open-Ended Questions
Here are a few open-ended questions:
- Why do countries engage in war with each other?
- What are you looking to purchase at the supermarket tomorrow?
- How did things go so wrong between the two of you?
- What is it that you loved the most about your childhood?
- How will our company benefit from hiring you?
- What are your plans after graduation?
- Why do you like London so much?
- What is life in Mexico like?
- How can I get there quickly?
These questions require lengthier responses, which could vary across respondents. And as mentioned above, open-ended questions usually have no correct or wrong answers.
Also, though requiring lengthy responses, these questions are not difficult to answer. For example, if you are heading to the supermarket tomorrow, it should not be that difficult to list out the items you’ll be buying. It may require some time and effort to name all the items, but the question certainly won’t stump you or catch you off-guard.
When to Use Open-Ended Questions?
Open-ended questions come in handy when the objective is to learn more about a situation or person and not just solicit simple yes/no responses. They help with research work and other elaborate tasks, such as finding out the problems to solve, what solutions to provide, etc.
Open-ended questions can be incredibly helpful during expert interviews, doing preliminary research, carrying out small population studies, etc. During interviews, an open-ended question provides the interviewee the scope to think critically and infuse unadulterated thoughts into their answers.
If the objective is to learn more about ancient China’s history, the historians you’ll interview for the research must be given free rein and cannot be bounded by a closed-ended question or made to choose from a selection of predetermined responses.
A few other scenarios where open-ended questions make sense include:
- Sessions with new or potential clients
- Feedback sessions with current clients
- Testimonial interviews
Generally, when framing open-ended questions, it’s important the question starts with words, such as “how”, “when”, “what”, “which”, “where”, etc. as they are more direct and generate specific answers. Do not use “why” questions as they allow the respondent to meander through their thoughts seamlessly and endlessly. Not to mention, sifting the responses generated from those thoughts, to extract the information you need, could be a challenge.
While on the topic of framing the questions and lengthy answers, also make sure the questions aren’t too complicated or broad. Do not always encourage lengthy responses, particularly if the questions are part of a survey and there are hundreds of participants.
Drawbacks of Open-Ended Questions
Since open-ended questions are qualitative in nature, they don’t help when the objective is to extract conclusive data. The amount of time and effort needed to assimilate the data procured through open-ended questions could be at times overwhelming too.
Also, as alluded to above, open-ended questions don’t work when there are too many respondents. Both generating responses and sifting through them will be an uphill task.
Closed-Ended Questions and Their Open-Ended Variants
To better understand closed-ended and open-ended questions, here are some closed-ended questions followed by their open-ended versions:
- Would you like some chocolate ice cream?
- What ice cream flavor do you like the most and why?
- Have you met Peter before?
- How did you meet Peter?
- What car do you drive?
- What do you like about your car so much?
- Do you collect coins as a hobby?
- What are your hobbies?
- On a 1 to 10 scale, how satisfied are you with the services of our customer support team?
- What areas do you think are customer support department needs work?
- Are you happy with the quality and number of new leads you are getting currently?
- How good do you think are the leads you are currently getting in?
- Are you liking the adverts put out by our competition?
- What are your thoughts on the marketing campaign of our competition?
These example questions make it clear that closed-ended queries elicit quick, short responses. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, are starting points of a potentially deep and lengthy conversation.
Asking questions is a sign of a healthy and curious brain. But how those questions are being framed ascertain how good the answers are.
Whenever possible or when in doubt, open-ended questions are ideal as they help dig out more than what you originally asked for or would have anticipated. If there is not much time to scrutinize the responses or the different answers need to be compared, the open-ended question approach should be taken.
You may even blend the two formats. In fact, it’s recommended you adopt this approach. For example, ask a closed-ended question and follow it up with an open-ended question to get exact information and allow the respondent to explain why they chose a particular option. What you end up with, as a result, is both qualitative and quantitative information.