Sheila here, writing once again with my powerhouse survey design partner, Kim Leonard.

Open-ended survey questions have the potential to yield high quality, rich, nuanced data that provide deep insights into people’s attitudes, behaviors, experiences, and more.

Sometimes we genuinely need open-ended survey questions to capture the information we’re looking for. Open-ended questions often feel easier to compose, and more natural to ask because they more closely mirror the way that we communicate with one another. 

However, in survey format, open-ended questions can also be very challenging for respondents to answer. 

“…open-ended questions require more time and effort on the part of respondents, something a researcher must carefully consider especially when determining how many open-ended questions are used in a single survey instrument. Too many open-ended questions, and we risk item nonresponse when respondents skip these questions, fail to provide meaningful answers, or fail to complete the remainder of the survey (a good argument for making these questions optional wherever possible). Respondents may also answer the question minimally, with little effort expended, resulting in less useful information than desired (Krosnick, 1999)” (in Robinson & Leonard, 2018, p 92).

If you find your survey draft loaded up with open-ended questions, that’s a good sign that you need to pause and refine, in order to avoid the dreaded survey fatigue. Here are four steps to take in doing so:

Step 1: Revisit your survey purpose. 

Get crystal clear on what exactly you need to measure to answer your research or evaluation questions. You might find you can refine, prioritize or reframe questions. 

Or, you might find that you are headed down the wrong research path entirely – if you find yourself truly in need of mostly open-ended questions, focus groups, interviews, or another strategy might be a better choice. Just because surveys seem cheaper and easier does not mean they are the best option for collecting all kinds of information.

Step 2: Put yourself in your respondents’ shoes.

Here are some of the many possibilities of what happens when respondents encounter an open-ended survey question:

  • They can’t come up with an answer right away
  • They don’t feel they have the time to respond
  • They can’t quite articulate what they want to say in sentences
  • They don’t enjoy writing out their answers 
  • The question feels too complex or overwhelming

“…respondents are often not willing (or able) to provide lengthy or detailed written answers in response to multiple open-ended questions. This happens for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is both the time it takes to organize one’s thoughts and to articulate them coherently in writing, along with the willingness to expose one’s writing ability to researchers” (Robinson & Leonard, 2018, p. 48).

Review your survey to clarify, simplify, or otherwise edit your questions to make them easier for respondent to answer. 

Step 3: Pre-test to determine whether some open-ended questions can become closed-ended.

If you have the time, budget and bandwidth, a focus group or short set of interviews (ideally with potential survey respondents or a similar population) can be immensely helpful in potentially shifting questions from open-ended to closed-ended. You may find that enough responses are similar, or fall into well-defined categories that your question can be converted to a closed-ended format. Piloting the survey with a small group, and asking them for feedback can also be well worth the investment of time and budget (consider compensating people for their time and feedback!). 

Step 4: Plan for analysis and use. 

Once you’ve determined which open-ended questions to keep in the survey, you need to turn your attention to analysis and use. Analyzing qualitative data from open-ended questions takes more time and a different skill set than quantitative data, and takes some additional planning.

  • How will you work with the qualitative data and do you have the time to devote to analysis?
  • Do you have an appropriate coding strategy you can apply to the data? 
  • How are you going to use the information that will come in via those questions? 
  • Do you plan to quantify the data for reporting?
  • Are you fishing for confirmatory information, or feedback that you could potentially ask for in a different way? 

Considering these questions can help you further prioritize or eliminate open-ended questions. It may also help to identify where you need a closed-ended question – if your intended analysis plan really requires it.

Of course, open-ended questions still have great value, and can be important for capturing the information you need in ways that help your respondents feel heard. 

“Open questions produce fuller and deeper responses reflecting differences in opinions and attitudes that are missed by the constraints of pre-coded categories” (Bradburn & Sudman, 1988, p. 147). 

TL;DR on open-ended questions? Just use them wisely! 😉

🌟 Want to learn more? Kim and I are now offering our workshop
Designing Quality Survey Questions as an online course, open to the public! You get a comprehensive 5-hr course and participant workbook along with two expert instructors to answer all your survey design questions. Learn more about the course and register for the next session. You’ll never look at a survey the same way!

Check out my other articles on survey design.

Interested in a talk or workshop on any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.