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Qualitative research: open and closed-ended questions

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From a very young age, we have been taught what open-ended, and closed-ended questions are. How are these terms applied to qualitative research methods, and in particular to interviews?

Kathryn J. Roulston reveals her definitions of an open-ended and closed-ended question in qualitative interviews in the SAGE Encyclopedia on Qualitative Research Methods.


  1. Closed-ended question
  2. Open-ended question

A closed-ended question

A closed-ended question offers, as its name suggests, a limited number of answers. For example, the interviewee may choose a response from a panel of given proposals or a simple “yes” or “no”. They are intended to provide a precise, clearly identifiable and easily classified answer.

This type of question is used in particular during interviews whose purpose is to be encoded according to pre-established criteria. There is no room for free expression, as is the case for open-ended questions.
Often, this type of question is integrated into 1-to-1 interview guides and focus groups and allows the interviewer to collect the same information from a wide range of respondents in the same format. Indeed, closed-ended questions are designed and oriented to follow a pattern and framework predefined by the interviewer.

Two forms of closed-ended questions were identified by the researchers: specific closed-ended questions, where respondents are offered choice answers, and implicit closed-ended questions, which include assumptions about the answers that can be provided by respondents.

A specific closed-ended question would be formulated as follows, for example: “how many times a week do you eat pasta: never, once or twice a week, 3 to 4 times, 5 times a week or more?”
The adapted version in the form of an implicit closed-ended question would be formulated as follows: “how many times a week do you eat pasta? ». The interviewer then assumes that the answers will be given in figures.

While some researchers consider the use of closed-ended questions to be restrictive, others see in these questions – combined with open-ended questions – the possibility of generating different data for analysis. How these closed-ended questions can be used, formulated, sequenced, and introduced in interviews depends heavily upon the studies and research conducted upstream.

Read also: Creating a questionnaire for quantitative market research

An open-ended question

An open-ended question is a question that allows the respondent to express himself or herself freely on a given subject. This type of question is, as opposed to closed-ended questions, non-directive and allows respondents to use their own terms and direct their response at their convenience.

Open-ended questions, and therefore without presumptions, can be used to see which aspect stands out from the answers and thus could be interpreted as a fact, behaviour, reaction, etc. typical to a defined panel of respondents.

For example, we can very easily imagine open-ended questions such as “describe your morning routine”. Respondents are then free to describe their routine in their own words, which is an important point to consider. Indeed, the vocabulary used is also conducive to analysis and will be an element to be taken into account when adapting an interview guide, for example, and/or when developing a quantitative questionnaire.

As we detail in our market research whitepaper, one of the recommendations to follow when using open-ended questions is to start by asking more general questions and end with more detailed questions.
For example, after describing a typical day, the interviewer may ask for clarification on one of the aspects mentioned by the respondent. Also, open-ended questions can also be directed so that the interviewee evokes his or her feelings about a situation he or she may have mentioned earlier.

It is essential for the interviewer to give respondents a framework when using open-ended questions. Without this context, interviewees could be lost in the full range of possible responses, and this could interfere with the smooth running of the interview.
Another critical point concerning this type of question is the analytical aspect that follows. Indeed, since respondents are free to formulate their answers, the data collected will be less easy to classify according to fixed criteria.

Of course, the use of open-ended questions in interviews does not exclude the use of closed-ended questions. Alternating these two types of questions in interviews, whether 1-to-1 interviews, group conversations or focus groups, is conducive not only to maintaining a specific dynamic during the interview but also to be able to frame specific responses while leaving certain fields of expression free.
In general, it is interesting for the different parties that the interview ends with an open-ended question where the interviewer asks the interviewee if he or she has anything to add or if he or she has any questions.

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