Survey Questions: Choosing The Right Question Type To Achieve The Insight You Seek

Question writing is one of the most fundamental aspects of survey research. The answers and insights you get from your survey are only as good as the questions you ask. Writing the questions may seem like a daunting task, but there’s a structured set of guidelines that are specific to questionnaires. Survey researchers draw from two classes of question types when writing questionnaires.

1) Closed End

  • Single select
  • Multiple select

2) Open End

  • Number
  • Text

Closed End Question Types

Closed end question types are essentially multiple-choice questions. Underneath the question is a list of answer choices and the participant is required to select a choice among those. For a single select, only one of the answer choices can be selected. For multi-select, the participant can select one or more choices as it applies to them.

Normally, the nature of your question dictates whether you choose a single or multi-select question. Where only one answer is possible, (e.g. What is your gender?) a single select is used; where multiple answers are possible, (e.g. Which ice cream flavors have you tried?) a multi-select is used. Keep in mind multi-select questions are more tedious for the survey participant. They involve selecting and considering multiple response options, so stick with single-select question types for the majority of your survey.

Single Select

Figure 1: In a single elect question, only one choice can be made from the list of available option

Multi-Select

Figure 2: A multi select question allows for multiple answers. Participants select ‘all that apply’

One other consideration for the single select question type is that it can be a useful way to force people to discriminate and prioritize how they feel. Using ice cream flavors as an example:

By transforming this question into a single select question, you can gain an understanding of what flavor people prioritize.

Open End Question Types

In contrast, to a closed end question, an open-end question type does not include a pre-configured set of answer choices to choose from. Instead, the participant is asked to type in a response. The two most common types of open-end questions are number and text. For the former, the participant answers the question with a number and for the latter, the participants can type in a few sentences to answer the question.

Figure 3. Open end questions allow the participant to freely type in an answer rather than being restricted to a pre-configured set of options to choose from

What Question Type to Use?

In considering whether to use a closed or open-end question type, researchers consider analytical, data reporting and logistical outcomes. Closed and open-end question types have their strengths and weaknesses, so choosing one or the other depends on your needs.

Closed-end questions are used to “get a count”: how many people are aware of my company’s brand? How many people are satisfied or dissatisfied? In a closed-end question just a finite set of answer choices are provided, and the researcher can simply count the number of times participants selected “Brand A” as one of the ones they’ve heard of. In this way, data collected from surveys can be used to quantify attitudes, behaviors, and preferences among consumers. And the results can be illustrated in a chart or data table.

Figure 4. Data collected from closed end questions can easily be illustrated in chart format

While closed-end question types are much more common in surveys, one limitation is that they capture little detail and narrowly define how someone can answer your questions. A closed end question will allow you to count and track over time the number of satisfied customers you have, but it doesn’t explain why people are satisfied or dissatisfied? If someone selects “satisfied”, that does not capture other nuances like “I’m satisfied, but only in certain situations.” Understanding the “how” and “why” often requires an open-end question allowing people to answer more freely without being restricted to choosing one of the answer options provided.

Analyzing and reporting data gathered from open-end questions is more challenging, however. In a study where 1000 people answering the question “why are you satisfied with Brand A?” someone must read and summarize all the answers. It involves cost and time to analyze open end responses.

Open-end questions also involve more thought and time for the participant to answer. Although thoughtfully considered answers to survey questions are desirable, the reality is survey participants are more prone to drop out and abandon a survey when encountering an open-end question. Generally, it is good practice to limit a survey to no more than a few open-end questions.

When writing questions for your survey, it’s not only important to consider what you want to ask, but how you should ask. While determining what questions to ask in a survey will be primarily guided by your research goals and objectives, determining how to ask your question involves consideration of the ways participants interact with surveys and the type of data you seek. Closed end questions are useful for data that can be displayed as charts. Use these if the goal is to quantify and measure consumer opinions. Open end questions provide consumers the opportunity to freely narrate how they feel and what they experience in order for you to understand the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’

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