Do open-ended or closed questions get the best results?

Paul Stallard - Monday November 11th 2019

The answer to this is that it depends on what you want to know. Closed questions are great for finding out what, how and when, and for quantifying those answers. Open-ended questions help you understand the ‘why’ that is behind the numbers, but are harder to quantify. For example, to find out how many people are likely to stay in the UK for their holiday this year, instead of going abroad, you would ask a closed question, and give respondents a list of answers to pick from.

Where are you going on your main holiday this year? Choose one answer only.

  1. Destination in the UK
  2. Destination abroad
  3. Not going on holiday

This would give you a clear percentage to report. If you wanted to understand why that percentage of people are choosing the UK, you could ask another closed question, but you would have to make an assumption about what the answers might be.  For example

Why are you staying in the UK for your main holiday this year?

  1. It’s cheaper
  2. Taking pet on holiday
  3. Don’t want to fly
  4. Want to support UK economy
  5. Visiting family

It’s likely that you will be able to predict some of the answers, but not all, so without an open-ended question, you will be missing some findings. So in this case, the best results would come with adding an open-ended question. You can do this in two ways. Firstly, you could just add a sixth option to the list above:

  1. Other, specify

This gives respondents a chance to write in their own thoughts on the question. Alternatively, you could give them a completely open-ended option, without the pre-determined list.

Why do you say you will be staying in the UK for your main holiday this year?

This option will give you a wider range of answers, which will help you understand the question, but will be harder to turn into a quantifiable percentage answer.

In short, closed questions give you great statistics about what, where, when and who, whereas open-ended questions help you explore your question. Both give great results, in the right situation.

Open-ended questions help you understand the ‘why’ that is behind the numbers, but are harder to quantify

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