When & Why to Use Open-Ended Questions in Surveys

The standard survey. You know it well. Tick a box for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Give a score out of five. Or maybe choose from a list of pre-determined options. Whatever the case, it’s the classic closed-ended question survey. And it’s a staple of survey design the world over.

survey completion rates

There are good reasons why this model is so popular. However, in an ever-crowded sea of surveys, and with increasing awareness of the value of authentic, detailed feedback, it can be worthwhile to think outside the box. Literally.

Open-ended survey questions, where you let the respondent answer in their own words, can give your survey a unique edge. They can generate valuable information that you might otherwise miss with the tick-a-box method.

However, it’s important to know the strengths and weaknesses of using this method, and when you’re better off sticking with the trusty closed-ended question survey design.

With that in mind, let’s look at the pros and cons of including open-ended questions in surveys.

Benefits of Open-Ended Survey Questions

It can be refreshing to shake up the survey tree and leave the box-ticking behind. With open-ended survey questions, you can dig down to the respondent’s authentic, highly personal reactions. You can find out what they really think.

This is valuable information for any company. It tells you the personality of your audience or market and lets you make targeted decisions in marketing, product and service improvements.

In addition, using open-ended survey questions can lead to customer empowerment. Everybody wants to know their opinions matter. The respondent feels respected. In turn, this can generate strong positive vibes for your company or brand. Marketing gold.

Open-ended survey questions work best on shorter, more in-depth surveys. Use them when you want to ask a handful of targeted questions, and where the answers are highly subjective and emotion-based. This is where open-ended questions shine.

open-ended survey questions

The survey analysis will likely take longer than a closed-ended question survey, so it’s important to factor that in. Likewise, the analysis itself might be more subjective, since it’s harder to reduce open-ended responses to a set of numbers and percentages.

However, don’t let that put you off. If you’re prepared to put in the legwork, subjective analysis can be a powerful tool for any company or brand. In ways that plain old statistics and numbers can’t. You might be surprised to discover customer impressions and preferences you’d never before considered.

Limitations of Open-Ended Survey Questions

Survey fatigue. It’s a real thing. You’ve asked too many questions. Been a little too invasive. Pushed too hard in your quest for feedback.

And it can backfire big time. Your audience feels overwhelmed. They become bored. Resentful. They phone it in, just to get through the survey. And they develop subtle but powerfully negative associations with your company or brand.

Obviously, you want to avoid this kind of backlash at all costs. Which means being smart about your feedback gathering methods.

Just because open-ended survey questions can be so valuable, doesn’t mean you should always use them. It’s often the case that less is more. If you’re giving the respondent the chance to write detailed, emotionally-charged responses, use this method sparingly. Short surveys, or when used in combination with closed-ended questions, work best.

In addition, don’t discount the value of a neat, easy to interpret set of numbers that closed-ended surveys can give you. Sometimes, what you need most is to know general trends or directions. You’re looking for basic signs of improvement or decline in products or services.

open-ended survey questions

This is where the classic, simple, closed-ended model really shines. It’s quick. You can reach a larger audience. Analysis of the data can be fast and cost-effective. You can get powerful, simple to interpret benchmarks that will be valuable as you move forward.

It’s a lot harder to get these benefits with open-ended survey questions. So it’s important to ask yourself: what’s the main purpose of my survey? Do I want to burrow down to the specifics, or do I want to cast a wide net and map general trends?

Another important point to consider is how your respondent is completing the survey. There’s a good chance it’s on a smartphone or tablet. And you know what that means: no keyboard!

You don’t want to roll out your detailed, highly-researched, open-ended question survey, only to get a very poor response rate because people can’t be bothered awkwardly typing answers on their smartphone or tablet.

Again, this is where closed-ended surveys work best. They are simple. Tailor-made for modern devices, and for completing on the go. And even if the answers aren’t always deeply considered, at least you’re getting some feedback. Anything is better than nothing.

Which Survey is Right for You?

Surveys can be hugely beneficial. This is a given. And when you roll one out, you want to be sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.


So when you’re designing your survey, the key questions to ask yourself are: do I want to know specific information or general trends? Who is my typical respondent, and how are they engaging with the survey? Am I looking for subjective feedback, or more clinical, easy to digest numerical analysis?

The truth, of course, is that there is room for both types of survey questions.

Sometimes, the smartest thing you can do is release the standard, closed-ended question survey, and give your respondents the option of open-ended responses.

That way, if someone has a strong view or suggestion for improvement, they are empowered to share it, without feeling pressured or overwhelmed.


Survey design can be an art form. But if you follow these tips, and consider a blended mix of open-ended and closed-ended questions, you’re bound to get valuable, highly relevant feedback.

Just make sure to avoid the perils of survey fatigue, and don’t be afraid to try out some new methods. You might be surprised by the results.

Anna Rubkiewicz

Content Specialist @ Survicate. Hopeless animal lover & avid (albeit amateur) singer.

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