open-ended-questions

Open-ended questions vs. close-ended questions: examples and how to survey users

January 7, 2020 by Fio Dossetto

Unless you’re a mind reader, the only way to find out what people are thinking is to ask them.

That's what surveys are for. But the way you ask the question often determines the kind of answer you get back—and one of the first decisions you have to make is: are you going to ask an open-ended or a closed-ended question?

Open-ended questions are broad and can be answered in detail (e.g. "What do you think about this product?"), while closed-ended questions are narrow in focus and usually answered with a single word or a pick from limited multiple-choice options (e.g. "Are you satisfied with this product?" → Yes/No/Mostly/Not quite).

By understanding the difference between the two, you can learn to ask better questions and get better, more actionable answers. The examples below 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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Table of contents

What are open-ended questions?

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 trends, and even spot elements that stand out with word cloud visualizations.

word cloud from open ended responses
a wordcloud generated from open-ended question responses to "what do you like about Hotjar?"

What are closed-ended questions?

Closed-ended questions are questions that can only be answered by selecting from a limited number of options, usually multiple-choice, ‘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 marketing is the Net Promoter Score® (NPS) question, 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.

nps-results-dashboard
QUANTITATIVE DATA FROM A CLOSED-QUESTION NPS POLL

When to use open-ended questions and closed-ended questions

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—ultimately— increase conversions and sales.

As a rule of thumb, the type of question you choose depends on what you are 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]? will help you understand the proportion of people who find your website trustworthy versus those who do not:
polls_truspilot_crop
  • Ask an open-ended question when you want to develop a better understanding of your customers and their needs, get more context behind their actions, and/or investigate the reasons behind their satisfaction/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:
checkout-hotjar-poll-example-crop

7 examples of open-ended questions vs closed-ended questions

Most closed-ended questions can be turned into open-ended questions with a few minor changes. Here’s an example: on the left- hand side, you have closed-ended questions; on the right-hand side, each question has been tweaked into an open-ended version that allows respondents to elaborate further.

Closed-ended question example Open-ended question example
Would you recommend our product/service? What were the main reasons you chose our product/service?
Did you experience good customer service? How did you feel about our customer service?
Would you consider using our product/service again? What would make you use our product/service again?
Did you like our product/service? What is the most important feature of our product/service for you?
Are you interested in buying product/service today? Why are you looking for product/service today?
Are you happy with your experience with us? How would you describe your experience with us?
Did you find what you were looking for today? How can we help you find what you are looking for today?
  • All the closed questions in the left column can be answered with a one-word answer, specifically Yes or No.
    These answers can give you the general sentiment of each user and a few useful data points about their satisfaction, which can 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 1, 3, 6, 12 months?

  • The open-ended questions in the right column help you understand the context behind a problem or learn more about your USPs (unique selling points) instead. So if it’s qualitative data like this you’re after, the easy way to convert closed-ended into open-ended questions is to think about the range of possible responses and re-word your questions to allow a free answer.

🔥 Pro tip: when surveying people on your website, ask questions that can help you find out both the what and the why behind your users’ actions. You can accomplish it by combining open- and closed-ended questions as part of the same survey:

  • Start from a closed-ended question, which usually costs people little effort to answer
  • Continue with a follow-up open-ended question, which gives them an opportunity—should they want to take it—to elaborate on the answer.
closed-open-ended-question.jpg
An example of closed-ended and open-ended question from one of our blog pages

Find out what your users want today 🔥

Create a free Hotjar account and survey your website visitors to learn what they think, want, and need.

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5 of our favorite open-ended questions to ask customers

Now that you know how to ask 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 through the entire site, or choose to display them on specific pages (URLs) only:

poll-url-hotjar.png

As per what to ask—if you're getting started, the five open-ended questions below are ideal for ecommerce sites (or any website that can benefit from user research and insight):

  1. How can we make this page better
  2. Where exactly did you first hear about us?
  3. What is stopping you from [action] today?
  4. What are your main concerns or questions about [product/service]?
  5. What persuaded you to [take action] today?

1. How can we make this page better?

open-ended-question-example5

Short and to the point, asking a user how a page can be better leaves the door wide open to a multitude of answers you may not have thought of.

2. Where exactly did you first hear about us?

open-ended-question-example

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.

3. What is stopping you from [action] today?

open-ended-question-example2

A “what is stopping you?” question can be shown on exit pages; the open-form answers will help you identify the barriers to conversion that stop people from taking action.

🏆 Pro tip: questions like this one can also be triggered in a post-purchase survey that shows up 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]?

open-ended-question-example3

Finding out the concerns and objections of customers on your website will help you address them in future versions of the page(s) they’re on. It sounds simple, but you’ll be surprised by how candid and helpful your users will be when answering this one.

5. What persuaded you to [take action] today?

open-ended-question-example4

Learning what made a customer click ‘buy now’ or ‘sign up’ will help 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 will allow you to emphasize these benefits to other users and, ultimately, increase conversions.

Why asking open-ended questions to your customers can increase sales

When users take the time to open up to you and give you feedback on the surveys and polls you’ve set up, it’s usually open-ended questions that lead to the most valuable feedback and rich insights.

There is still a time and a place for closed-ended questions (see NPS, for example), but, as Sarah Doody, author of UX Notebook, explained to us when we interviewed her a few months back:

I always have a last question which is just open-ended: “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?” And sometimes those are where you get four paragraphs long of this amazing content that you would never have got if it was just a Net Promoter Score [survey] or something like that.

SarahDoody

Sarah Doody - author of UX Notebook

Open-ended questions are perfect for finding out:

What did customers enjoy about our business?

Spotting your strengths helps you showcase your value to more users, and could lead to further business insight beyond UX. For example, maybe you offer regular coupons to increase sales, but customers don’t mention lower prices as their reason for purchasing—this could prompt you to evaluate future discounting decisions and consider price changes.

What can we improve?

An open platform for your customers to tell you their pain points is far more valuable than guessing what improvements you should make. Issues could range from technical bugs to lack of product range: you won’t know until you ask.

Where did we fall short?

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.

📚 Read more: here’s some expert advice on which product questions to ask when your product isn't selling.

How to ask survey questions to customers

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 too 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.

🏆 Pro tip: we actually think it’s worth encouraging negative feedback from survey respondents! An easy way to do it is by emphasizing the fact that honest answers are crucial to improving a product/service:

hotjar honest feedback

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: many ignore the “and why?” part), whereas wording the question as “Why did you choose to make a purchase today” can allow for an open answer, for example, “I saw your special offer and bought socks for my niece.”

Keep your survey simple

Not many folks love filling in a survey that’s 50 questions long and takes an hour to complete. Value your customer’s time by keeping your surveys simple, concise, and to-the-point with these 3 tips:

1. Keep question length short

Good questions are one sentence long and worded as concisely as possible.

2. Limit the number of questions

Take your list of planned questions and be ruthless when narrowing them down. Keep the questions that you know will lead to direct insight, and ditch the rest.

3. Show survey progress while completing

A simple progress bar, or an indication of how many questions are left, will help keep users motivated to continue answering your survey.

Open-ended questions vs closed-ended questions in a nutshell

  • Open-ended questions let people express their opinions, in their own words
  • Closed-ended questions allow limited responses, like ‘yes’ or ‘no’
  • Closed-ended questions provide some quantitative data on users (e.g., NPS survey)
  • Open-ended questions lead to insightful answers that can help you empathize with users and how they experience your website
  • You can turn a closed question into an open-ended one by asking for detail
  • Avoid asking leading questions, or appending questions with “and why?”
  • Good surveys have a few, short questions and a progress bar

Find out what your users want today 🔥

Create a free Hotjar account and survey your website visitors to learn what they think, want, and need.

user feedback message flow

Net Promoter, Net Promoter System, Net Promoter Score, NPS and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.

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Fio Dossetto

Fio manages editorial production at Hotjar, generally over-uses em dashes, and makes sure we publish specific, actionable pieces—with a sprinkle of our signature style on top.