Add some qual to your quant research

Answers to open-ended questions in online surveys can produce valuable insights in respondents’ own words, which add colour and a human touch to the results.

However, often they can be disappointing. So in this article we look at various ways to get the best possible answers from such questions, without necessarily adding any time or cost to surveys.


Why open-ended answers are often disappointing

One major reason, especially with panel surveys, is that many respondents race through questionnaires, so do not stop to think about, and then write in, their answers to open-ended questions. Another reason is that they may not understand what they are being asked, or even be able to answer.


So what can be done to improve things? Here are five suggestions.


Review the soft launch results

If you read the first few answers to your open-ended questions you will be able to tell if respondents have misunderstood what is expected of them. You can then re-word any such questions. And then you could do another soft launch (rather than going straight into full fieldwork), and review the answers again.


Add a “Don’t know” checker

It is possible to add a control into an open-ended question, such that if a respondent writes “Don’t know”, “Not sure”, “None”, etc… then a prompt is shown asking them to think further about their answer. This prompt can even re-phrase the question for them.


Avoid using the word “Why” in the question

If an open-ended question is phrased as “Why did you….?” this can imply some underlying judgement within the question. It is better to ask something like “What were your main reasons for…”, or some other wording that does not include “why”.


Include a minimum word count

It is possible to put in a control into open-ended questions which says “Please write at least xx words in your answer”.


Use time-controls

Another possibility is to prevent respondents from going to the next question before a certain amount of time has elapsed. So, an open-ended question might say “Please tell us what you think about xyz. To give you time to think about this we have hidden the “Continue” button for x seconds”.



Some of these methods require the survey software to have particular capabilities, but others do not. Either way, if you are using a research agency or panel to run your online surveys then it should be able to advise you.


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