Asking open-ended questions in your survey uncovers in-depth insights from respondents in their own words. While close-ended questions also provide valuable information, asking both question types in your survey gives you the data and context to make larger business decisions, act on immediate solutions, and plan long-term goals.

In this post, we’ll explain what open-ended questions are, the difference between closed and open-ended questions (including when to use both), and examples of open-ended questions to use in your surveys. 

What is an open-ended question?

Open-ended questions begin with “why,” “how,” or “what” and require the respondent to provide more than a single-word answer. Unlike close-ended questions that only need a simple “yes” or “no” to answer the question, open-ended questions prompt the respondent to detail their response in a free response format.

With open-ended questions, respondents have the opportunity to convey how they think and feel. Collecting this type of verbatim feedback can unveil insights and recurring sentiment trends that you may not have been aware of.

Open-ended vs. close-ended questions

Open and close-ended questions collect completely different types of survey data. Open-ended questions help survey creators collect qualitative (non-numerical) data to understand respondents’ thoughts and feelings. Close-ended questions, on the other hand, collect quantitative (numerical) data through predetermined answers. 

Gathering both qualitative and quantitative data gives you the full picture of your survey results, with data you can use for statistical analysis and context to fill in the gaps.

Open ended questions comparison

15 open-ended question examples

Open-ended questions encourage respondents to explain their answers in their own words, without restriction. Whether you’re gathering insights on the customer, employee, or product experience, we’ve gathered common examples of open-ended questions to use in your surveys.

Open-ended questions for customer feedback

  • Tell us a bit more about why you chose [rating/option].
  • What motivated you to make this purchase today?
  • What made you choose our [product/service] over competitors?
  • What are some ways we can improve?
  • Is there anything else you would like us to know?

Open-ended questions for employee feedback

  • How does this company help you reach your career goals?
  • What can your manager do to support development in your role?
  • How can this company better support your well-being?
  • What resources or technology do you need to work more effectively?
  • How trustworthy do you find the leadership of this company?

Open-ended questions for product feedback

  • What can we do to improve this product?
  • How do you use this product?
  • How does this product make you feel and why?
  • What do you like about this product and why?
  • What do you dislike about this product and why?

When to use open-ended questions: 4 use cases

While open-ended questions are a great addition to any survey, it’s important to understand what type of verbatim feedback you want to collect and why. During the survey creation process, ask yourself, “How will this free response feedback help me reach my survey goals?” 

Here are a few examples of when and why you would want to gather additional information:

1. Get context on answers to close-ended questions and take action.

Asking an open-ended question directly after a close-ended question can help you learn the “why” behind a respondent’s initial score or multiple choice answer. This is specifically useful when you want to take steps to rectify poor experiences across the customer journey

For example, if you ask the Yes/No question, “Would you shop with us again?” and 40% of your respondents answered with a simple “No,” understanding why they would not shop again is necessary to make things right and reduce customer churn.

2. Collect information about your target audience and their needs.

Open-ended questions are great for collecting information on customers when you’re developing marketing campaigns and brand messaging. Consider gathering data such as what factors motivate them to make a purchase, brands they already buy from, or simply what they’re looking for in a certain type of product. This information can help you build buyer personas, attract your target audience, and shape your products around what they look for in a brand.

3. Gain a deeper understanding of your employees.

Get a read on employee happiness and employee engagement by allowing employees to answer sensitive organizational questions freely and anonymously. Through this, you can uncover detailed aspects of the current employee experience – including satisfaction with their benefits package, manager’s leadership style, or any changes to company policy.

4. Conduct product-market research.

Consider asking open-ended questions in product/market fit surveys to gather specific information on whether there is a market need for a new product you’re planning to launch or if the product you already launched is meeting the needs of your customers. That way, you can feel confident that your product positioning aligns with market needs and that your product is a highly competitive solution to customer problems.

When to use both open and close-ended questions

As mentioned, including both types of survey questions (instead of one or the other) can provide meaningful answers that paint a more detailed picture of your feedback.

You can use both question types to:

  • Find patterns in your survey data from close-ended questions and the story behind those patterns with open-ended questions.
  • Collect anonymous data from close-ended questions and specific details like email addresses or products purchased with open-ended questions.
  • Formulate a theory based on answers to open-ended questions and verify if the theory was correct with data from close-ended questions.

Tips for asking open-ended questions

Below are some best practice tips to follow as you begin creating your own open-ended questions.

Determine the need for an open-ended question

Before including an open-ended question in your survey, make sure to ask yourself if this question needs to be an open-ended question or if a close-ended question will do. 

For example, demographic questions like age, gender identity, income level, and marital status can be asked with predetermined single select answers. Questions about opinions, feelings, or general thoughts, however, are great opportunities for the respondent to write their answer freely in an open-text box.

Limit how many open-ended questions you ask

Every question in your survey doesn’t need to be open-ended; in fact, they shouldn’t all be. Limiting the number of open-ended questions you ask benefits your survey in that respondents don’t have to spend a significant amount of time writing their answers in their own words. A shorter survey can increase survey response rate, giving you more survey data to work with. 

Rewrite close-ended questions as open-ended questions

One exercise you can use to practice the art of asking open-ended questions is turning close-ended questions into open-ended ones. Take a look at some of your previous surveys to create a list of close-ended questions. Or, select from these example questions.

Then, rewrite each question from your list as an open-ended question. For example, the question “How likely are you to recommend our company to a friend or family member?” can be rewritten as an open-ended question like “What would motivate you to recommend our company to a friend or family member?” 

Consider making some open-ended questions optional

Much like including too many open-ended questions, requiring respondents to answer every open-ended question in your survey may hurt your survey completion rate. If respondents aren’t able or willing to provide a written response to all survey questions, they may not complete your survey.

Consider making open-ended questions in your survey optional, especially if your survey has a lot of them. That way, you can meet respondents where they are and get as much information from them as possible.

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