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Open-ended questions vs. close-ended questions: examples and how to survey users
Unless you’re a mind reader, the only way to find out what your users are thinking is to ask them. That's what surveys are for.
But the way you ask a question often determines the kind of answer you get—and one of the first decisions you have to make is: are you going to ask an open-ended or a closed-ended question?
Last updated26 Dec 2023
Reading time8 min
Understanding the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions helps you ask better, more targeted questions, so you can get actionable answers. The question examples we cover in this article look at open- and closed-ended questions in the context of a website survey, but the principle applies across any type of survey you may want to run.
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Open-ended vs. close-ended questions: what’s the difference?
Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and instead require the respondent to elaborate on their points.
Open-ended questions help you see things from a customer’s perspective as you get feedback in their own words instead of stock answers. You can analyze open-ended questions using spreadsheets, view qualitative research and data analysis trends, and even spot elements that stand out with word cloud visualizations.
Closed-ended questions are questions that can only be answered by selecting from a limited number of options, usually multiple-choice questions with a single-word answer (‘yes’ or ‘no’) or a rating scale (e.g. from strongly agree to strongly disagree).
Closed-ended questions give limited insight, but can easily be analyzed for quantitative data. For example, one of the most popular closed questions in market research is the Net Promoter Score® (NPS) survey, which asks people “How likely are you to recommend this product/service on a scale from 0 to 10?” and uses numerical answers to calculate overall score trends. Check out our NPS survey template to see this closed-ended question in action.
Let’s take a look at the examples of open-ended questions vs. closed-ended questions above.
All the closed questions in the left column can be responded to with a one-word answer that gives you the general sentiment of each user and a few useful data points about their satisfaction, which help you look at trends and percentages. For example, did the proportion of people who declared themselves happy with your website change in the last three, six, or 12 months?
The open-ended questions in the right column let customers provide detailed responses with additional information so you understand the context behind a problem or learn more about your unique selling points. If you’re after qualitative data like this, the easy way to convert closed-ended into open-ended questions is to consider the range of possible responses and re-word your questions to allow for a free-form answer.
For more inspiration, here are 20+ real examples of open- and closed-ended questions you can ask on your website, along with a bunch of free pre-built survey templates and 50+ more survey questions to help you craft a better questionnaire for your users.
Or, take advantage of Hotjar’s AI for Surveys, which generates insightful survey questions based on your research goal in seconds and prepares an automated summary report with key takeaways and suggested next steps once results are in.
How to ask survey questions for maximum responses
It’s often easy to lead your customers to the answer you want, so make sure you’re following these guidelines:
1. Embrace negative feedback
Some customers may find it hard to leave negative feedback if your questions are worded poorly.
For example, “We hope there wasn’t anything bad about your experience with us, but if so, please let us know” is better phrased neutrally as “Let us know if there was anything you’d like us to do differently.” It might sting a little to hear negative comments, but it’s your biggest opportunity to really empathize with customers and fuel your UX improvements moving forward.
2. Don’t lead your customers
“You bought 300 apples over the past year. What's your favorite fruit?” is an example of a leading question. You just planted the idea of an apple in your customers' mind. Valuable survey questions are open and objective—let people answer them in their own words, from their own perspective, and you’ll get more meaningful answers.
3. Avoid asking ‘and why?’
Tacking “and why?” on at the end of a question will only give you simple answers. And, no, adding “and why?” will not turn closed-ended questions into open-ended ones!
Asking “What did you purchase today, and why?” will give you an answer like “3 pairs of socks for a gift” (and that’s if you’re lucky), whereas wording the question as “Why did you choose to make a purchase today?” allows for an open answer like, “I saw your special offer and bought socks for my niece.”
4. Keep your survey simple
Not many folks love filling in a survey that’s 50 questions long and takes an hour to complete. For the most effective data collection (and decent response rates), you need to keep the respondents’ attention span in mind. Here’s how:
Keep question length short: good questions are one-sentence long and worded as concisely as possible
Limit the number of questions: take your list of planned questions and be ruthless when narrowing them down. Keep the questions you know will lead to direct insight and ditch the rest.
Show survey progress: a simple progress bar, or an indication of how many questions are left, motivates users to finish your survey
5 of our favorite open-ended questions to ask customers
Now that you know how to ask good open-ended questions, it’s time to start putting the knowledge into practice.
To survey your website users, use Hotjar's feedback tools to run on-page surveys, collect answers, and visualize results. You can create surveys that run on your entire site, or choose to display them on specific pages (URLs).
Different types of Hotjar surveys
As for what to ask—if you're just getting started, the five open-ended questions below are ideal for any website, whether ecommerce or software-as-a-service:
1. How can we make this page better?
If you missed the expectations set by a customer, you may have over-promised or under-delivered. Ask users where you missed the mark today, and you’ll know how to properly set, and meet, expectations in the future. An open platform for your customers to tell you their pain points is far more valuable for increasing customer satisfaction than guessing what improvements you should make. Issues could range from technical bugs to lack of product range.
2. Where exactly did you first hear about us?
An open “How did you find out about us?” question leaves users to answer freely, without leading them to a stock response, and gives you valuable information that might be harder to track with traditional analytics tools.
We have a traffic attribution survey template ready and waiting for you to get started.
3. What is stopping you from [action] today?
Questions like this can also be triggered in a post-purchase survey on a thank you or order confirmation page. This type of survey only focuses on confirmed customers: after asking what almost stopped them, you can address any potential obstacles they highlight and fix them for the rest of your site visitors.
4. What are your main concerns or questions about [product/service]?
Finding out the concerns and objections of potential customers on your website helps you address them in future versions of the page they’re on and the products they’ll use. It sounds simple, but you’ll be surprised by how candid and helpful your users will be when answering this one.
Do you want to gather feedback on your product specifically? Learn what to improve and understand what users really think with our product feedback survey template and this expert advice on which product questions to ask when your product isn't selling.
5. What persuaded you to [take action] today?
Learning what made a customer click ‘buy now’ or ‘sign up’ helps you identify your levers. Maybe it’s low prices, fast shipping, or excellent customer service—whatever the reason, finding out what draws customers in and convinces them to stay helps you emphasize these benefits to other users and, ultimately, increase conversions.
Ask the right questions at the right time to get the insights you need
Whether you’re part of a marketing, product, sales, or user research team, asking the right questions through customer interviews or on-site surveys helps you collect feedback to create better user experiences and increase conversions and sales.
The type of question you choose depends on what you’re trying to achieve:
Ask a closed-ended question when you want answers that can be plotted on a graph and used to show trends and percentages. For example, answers to the closed-ended question “Do you trust the information on [website]?” helps you understand the proportion of people who find your website trustworthy versus those who do not.
Ask an open-ended question when you want in-depth answers to better understand your customers and their needs, get more context behind their actions, and investigate the reasons behind their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with your product. For example, the open-ended question “If you could change anything on this page, what would it be?” allows your customers to express, in their own words, what they think you should be working on next.
Not only is the kind of question you ask important—but the moment you ask it is equally relevant. Hotjar Surveys, our online survey tool, has a user-friendly survey builder that lets you effortlessly craft a survey and embed it anywhere on your web page to ask the right questions at the right time and place.
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