Open-ended survey questions: definition, examples and tips

Sometimes market research can be simple.

For example, survey questions can generally be defined as either open-ended questions or closed-ended questions.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about open-ended questions.

How do you successfully combine open-ended questions with closed ended questions? How do you ask them the right way, and how many of them can you/should you put into a single survey? We’ll answer these important points in this guide.

And we’ll give you a few examples of open-ended questions to kick start your new survey.


Open-ended survey questions

What is an open-ended question?

An open-ended survey question is a question that allows respondents to answer in their own words. Questions like these can be used to gather qualitative data about people’s opinions, perceptions and experiences.

Open-ended questions vs closed-ended questions

What are they? How should you use them? Read on to find out…

Closed-ended questions

A closed-ended question is one that can be answered with a predetermined set of responses. Closed questions provide quantitative data that can be simpler to analyze than the qualitative research you’ll carry out with open-ended questions.

A closed-ended question provides answer choices—think about multiple-choice questions. This is perfect for simple answers, and when an answer needs to be numeric data. Close-ended questions are typically categorical—they can be assigned to one of a limited number of response categories—and therefore can be counted and compared.

Answers to closed-ended questions can be tallied and compared easily. For example, a closed-ended question might ask respondents to rank a list of potential vacation destinations from best to worst. This would give the researcher a sense of how people feel. Results can be quantified and help categorize respondents further down the road.

Person answering open-ended survey questions

Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions, on the other hand, let respondents answer in their own words, and require respondents to pause, think, and reflect. This gives some flexibility to respondents and allows them to produce more detailed and nuanced responses. 

Open-ended questions are valuable because they allow you to explore topics in greater depth and detail than closed-ended questions can on their own.

They’re also a great way to gather unbiased insights. For example, in brand tracking research you might ask an open-ended question first—a question like ‘Thinking about [category], what brands, if any, are you aware of? Please type in all the brands that you can think of’—to understand which brands people can think about without being prompted. 

And open-ended questions can give you some direction for your upcoming research projects, when you might not necessarily know which areas to explore in the future. Answers to these questions can give you ideas and raise themes you might not have considered otherwise. 

It can sometimes make sense to follow up your closed-ended question with an open-ended question. When you do this, you’re able to give some extra flavor and context to your initial closed question.

Another way to combine open-ended and closed-ended questions is to ask a series of closed-ended questions first in order to filter respondents who do not meet the criteria for the open-ended question. This will allow you to ask the open-ended question only to those who meet the criteria, which will help reduce response bias.

Open-ended questions also give you the chance to present your insights in ways that other questions don’t. For example, you can create a word cloud that highlights the most common words and phrases your respondents use. And who doesn’t love a word cloud?! As it happens, you can generate beautiful word clouds from your open-text insights on the Attest platform.

Person taking part in online surveys

When to use open-ended survey questions

Here are some key examples of when you can use open-ended questions. 

  • When you want to learn about consumers’ unprompted awareness of your brand. This will tell you how well known your brand is without being reminded that it exists.
  • You can use them when you want to learn more about someone’s thoughts or feelings on a topic, when you are creating a buyer persona, customer journey or gathering customer satisfaction feedback. You’ll get an enhanced flavor of answers when people can express their feelings in words rather than just by selecting from a predefined list.
  • When you want to gather ideas for a new product or service, or for a new campaign, open-ended questions can give you valuable information that could spark some creative ideas. 
  • When you want to get feedback on a product or service. Make sure to ask specific questions though, not just: what do you think? More on this when we get into example questions.
  • When you need to know about a ‘why’. For instance: you let someone rate holiday destinations from best to worst. That only tells you half the story: following up with open-ended questions, you can find out why they prefer San Francisco to Paris.
  • When you want more information on a ‘how’: for instance, a close-ended question could indicate that someone shops for garden tools online. Following up with an open-ended question, you can find out how they approach the search—ultimately not pushing them in one direction with close-ended questions.
  • When you want to find out whether the meaning and message of your ads or creative assets comes across to your target audience. 

56 examples of great open-ended questions

What type of open-ended questions you’ll be asking will highly depend on the type of market research you’re running. From brand perception to concept testing, campaign planning and everything in between, it’s important to tailor your questions to suit your particular type of research.

Use our list below as an inspiration for open-ended survey questions you could use, not something to copy-paste. Switch up some words to make them your own, and combine them in a way that makes sense. And remember that these questions should absolutely be combined with other types of questions to make sure your research gets you the insights you’re looking for.

Branding survey questions

  1. Thinking about [category], what brands, if any, are you aware of? Please type in all the brands that you can think of.’
  2. How would you describe [brand] to a friend?
  3. When you think of [brand], what words or phrases come to mind?
  4. If you had to describe [brand] in three words, what would they be?
  5. What initially attracted you to [brand]?
  6. Which of the following brands do you connect [brand] to? 
  7. What was your initial reaction to [brand]?
  8. How have your feelings towards [brand] changed over time?
  9. How did you become aware of [brand] and the products/services they offer?
  10. Who do you think [brand] is made for?
  11. Complete the following sentence: I think [brand] is….
  12. In the past year, what have you heard about [brand]?

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Customer feedback survey questions

  1. Please describe your last encounter with [brand]’s customer service department.
  2. How can [brand] provide a better service to you?
  3. Why do you buy from [brand]?
  4. How does buying/using [brand] make you feel?
  5. What elements do you consider when shopping for [product category]?
  6. What did you like best about your experience with [brand]?
  7. What did you like least about your experience with [brand]?
  8. What is your favorite feature of [product]?
  9. What do you like about that particular feature?
  10. What surprised you about using [product]?
  11. What annoys you about [product]?
  12. What problem does [product] solve for you?
  13. How well does [brand] product solve your problem?
  14. What were the main struggles you had when using [product]?
  15. If you could change one thing about [product], what would it be?
  16. What additional features would you like to see on [product]?
  17. In which situations do you commonly use [brand] products?
  18. Describe your purchasing process for [product].

Pricing survey questions

  1. How much would you expect [product] to cost? (Provide a text box for respondents to fill in their own answer, instead of staggered price brackets)
  2. What factors do you keep in mind when deciding how much you’d pay for [product]?
Pricing research survey questions

Market analysis survey questions

  1. What brands, if any, are you aware of in this product category? Please type in all the brands you can think of.
  2. What other brands have you considered?
  3. What would you say is the most significant difference between [brand] and [competitor brand]?
  4. Where did you look before coming to [brand]?
  5. Why did you choose [brand] products rather than a competitor’s?
  6. What does [brand] do better than other companies in this field?
  7. What product would you use as an alternative if [brand] was no longer available?
  8. What’s your overall opinion of [brand]?
  9. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about [brand]?

Customer profiling survey questions

  1. What other products did you try before using our product?
  2. What makes you feel valued as a customer?
  3. What websites and sources do you use to find new [category] products?
  4. What do you find the most difficult when shopping for this type of product?
  5. Where exactly did you first hear about [brand]?
  6. What type of content do you like to consume revolving [product]?
  7. What types of channels do you use when shopping for products?

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New product development and concept testing survey questions

  1. Please describe your ideal product for this category
  2. If you could change just one thing about [specific product], what would it be? 
  3. What is your least favorite aspect of [product feature]?
  4. Why don’t you like that [product feature]?
  5. If you could add anything you wanted to this product, what would it be?
  6. Why would you add this?
  7. If you could get rid of anything in this product, what would it be?
  8. Why would you get rid of that?

How to ask open-ended survey questions the right way

Asking open-ended questions sounds easy: just let the survey respondents do the talking, right?

Wrong. Asking open-ended questions is more complicated than it sounds, because you’re relying on your respondents to give you meaningful open-text answers. It’s therefore SUPER IMPORTANT that you structure your market research well so that you give respondents the best chance of understanding what you’re asking and that you carry out genuinely useful qualitative research.

Here’s how you can make sure your survey remains of high quality and you gather valuable answers.

How to ask open-ended survey questions the right way

Keep the structure of your survey in mind

We recommend not kicking your survey off with an open-ended question. Normally it helps to start with some closed ended questions to qualify your survey respondents and as a way to ease your respondents into the context of your survey, before you ask those open-ended questions.

Ask only for information that you can and will use

When you are designing a survey, it is important to only ask for information that you will actually use. Open-ended questions can be helpful for getting detailed feedback, but they can also be more difficult to analyze because you don’t end up with the more typical quantitative data you can more easily gather through close-ended questions.

Also keep in mind that for respondents, answering open-ended questions takes a lot more time and effort than selecting from predefined lists. Make sure you are not exploiting their willingness to answer your survey, and keep answers of high quality by limiting the amount of open-ended questions you are asking. Nobody started your survey because they wanted to write an essay!

Allow for respondents to use their own words

This has to do with the way you design your survey.

Make sure you don’t put words into their mouths—keep the language in your questions and overall survey copy neutral. You want to encourage respondents to really use their own words. If you use certain words or phrases in your open-ended questions, people might be influenced in their answers by those descriptions.

If a question really does need so much clarification that you are inclined to give examples, consider if the question is suitable as an open-ended question at all. Remember, open-ended questions are super valuable for online surveys, but use them sparingly

Allow your survey respondents the chance to give you their unfiltered opinions with open-ended questions.

Ask one question at a time

We’re often inclined to cover multiple subjects in one sentence, but this can blur your answers and confuse respondents. Don’t ask who their favorite actor is and why in one question, but split questions up as much as you can. This will make it a lot easier to analyze the results in the end, and you will make sure every single question gets fully answered.

Be specific

When asking an open-ended question you’ll want to be super-specific.

Asking someone what they like about your product can give you a full range of answers that might be hard to categorize and analyze. Instead, split it up in smaller pieces. So instead of

What do you like about our product?

Ask questions such as:

  • What do you think about the design of our product?
  • What do you think about the usability of our product?
  • What do you think about the durability of our product?

If you need these questions answered with detail and therefore choose open-ended questions, you will at least be able to categorize the answers.

Avoid leading questions

Leading, your honor!

Leading questions push respondents in a certain direction. They already contain information that you are either trying to confirm or deny. This means you won’t get a true unbiased answer from most respondents.

Here are some examples of open-ended questions that are leading, so don’t use these!

  • How much did you enjoy our last event?
  • Most people hate having to drive to the cinema for more than half an hour. What about you?
  • What did you find most user-friendly in our new app?

Avoid closed-ended questions in disguise

Closed-ended questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” and do not provide respondents with an opportunity to speak up. But sometimes we ask closed ended questions, thinking they’re open-ended. But unfortunately, having a text field ready for respondents, doesn’t necessarily mean your question is open-ended. For instance:

  • Were you happy with our latest product update?

Sure, a respondent might be able to say no and expand on that, but it would be better to ask a closed-ended question using the Likert scale and follow it up with an open-ended question for added context:

  • Thinking about [brand]’s latest product update, which of the following statements applies to you?
    • I loved it
    • I quite liked it
    • I neither liked or disliked it
    • I didn’t like it
    • I hated it
  • What made you feel this way?
    • [open-text response]

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Elliot Barnard

Customer Research Lead 

Elliot joined Attest in 2019 and has dedicated his career to working with brands carrying out market research. At Attest Elliot takes a leading role in the Customer Research Team, to support customers as they uncover insights and new areas for growth.

See all articles by Elliot