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Close-Ended Questions – A Complete Guide

close ended questions

We’ve all been in that awkward job interview where the interviewer asks an open-ended question like “tell me about yourself” and you don’t know where to start or what exactly they want to hear. 

The silence seems to stretch on forever as you try to gather your thoughts into a coherent response. If only the interviewer had asked a close-ended question instead, narrowly focused on a specific aspect of your background or skills, you could have confidently provided a precise, relevant answer.

This article will provide a comprehensive guide on close-ended questions, including their definition, purposes, proper phrasing, when to use them, potential drawbacks, and tips for using them effectively. 

Understanding close-ended questions can help improve the clarity and focus of interviews, surveys, forms, and any situation where specific information is needed. 

Let’s dive in to unlock the power of close-ended questions.

What Are Close-Ended Questions? 

Close-ended questions limit responses to preset options and do not allow for open-ended elaborative answers. There are several common types of close-ended questions:

Yes/no questions provide a simple binary choice between yes or no. There are no other response options. This allows you to get a direct confirmation or denial.

Multiple choice questions provide a defined set of possible responses. Respondents must choose one or more of the options, but cannot provide their own answers. This is useful for testing knowledge or attitudes when you have a good sense of the likely responses.

Scaled response questions ask respondents to rate something on a numeric scale, often 1-5 or 1-10. The scale typically has defined meaning, such as 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree. This elicits quantifiable data for easy analysis.

In contrast, open-ended questions do not restrict the possible responses. Respondents can answer freely in their own words and provide as much detail and explanation as they want. This elicits more qualitative, expansive information.

Close-ended questions intentionally limit the response possibilities to focus on precise information desired by the question asker. Open-ended questions allow for unlimited responses to explore the question broadly without preconceptions. Each type serves different purposes.

Benefits of Close-Ended Questions

1. Help Focus a Conversation or Interview

Close-ended questions narrow the scope of conversations by limiting responses to predefined options. 

In an interview, asking an open-ended behavioural question like “Tell me about a time you showed leadership” allows an unfocused, long-winded answer. Whereas asking “Which of these scenarios best shows your leadership abilities: A, B, or C?” forces the interviewee to focus on those specific situations. 

Close-ended questions provide direction and focus. Using them to start an interview establishes parameters and prevents rambling. 

Multi-choice and scaled questions keep respondents concentrated on key topics of interest rather than meandering to irrelevant subjects. The focused nature of close-ended questions provides clarity for both interviewer and interviewee.

2. Allow You to Gather Specific Information

Close-ended questions enable gathering detailed, targeted data by constraining responses. 

Questions with numeric rating scales reveal attitudes and behaviors that can be statistically analyzed. A survey question asking “On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend our product?” will provide quantified data on loyalty that can be compared and interpreted. 

Open-ended questions lead to vague, subjective responses that are difficult to measure. 

Close-ended questions provide definitive metrics and specifics. For example, a questionnaire asking “Have you purchased a product from Company X in the past 6 months? Yes/No” will provide a concrete statistic on customer retention. 

The quantifiable data from close-ended questions is precise and actionable.

3. Useful for Surveys and Questionnaires

Standardized survey and questionnaire design heavily utilizes close-ended questions. 

Open questions lead to problems of non-uniform responses that cannot be aggregated. A gender question with open answers might receive hundreds of different responses, whereas a closed question with options of “Male/Female/Non-binary” creates easily analyzable data. 

Surveys aiming for statistical significance with hundreds of respondents benefit immensely from the consistency of close-ended questions. The data can be coded and charted much easier when there are a limited number of possible responses. 

Additionally, close-ended questions are less demanding for respondents. This improves participation, focus, and accuracy in large surveys – especially those administered online or through self-service kiosks.

4. Require Less Effort for Respondents

Close-ended questions reduce the responder’s burden by simplifying the response process. 

Rather than having to mentally formulate a detailed, grammatically coherent answer, respondents can quickly choose from a few presented options. This is especially helpful for surveys taken by many participants – it avoids causing frustration or fatigue from repeatedly creating lengthy open answers. 

Close-ended questions also facilitate faster interviews by enabling more questions to be asked when answers are concise. 

This prevents wasting time with overly long responses. The limited effort required also may improve response quality, as participants have higher focus on simple close-ended questions and are less likely to lose interest or attention. 

Overall, close-ended questions optimize surveys and interviews through reduced respondent effort.

5. Help Make Quick Decisions

Fast, focused decisions can be enabled by limiting choices with close-ended questions. 

Asking an open “Tell me your thoughts on Option X” may produce lots of considerations but no clear decision. However, asking “On a scale of 1-5, how favorable are you towards Option X?” narrows the decision process by rating a single variable. 

Voting, purchasing, and other binary or multiple-choice decisions also benefit from the decisiveness that close-ended questions can provide. 

Rather than weighing lots of nuanced opinions, receivers can focus their cognitive effort on a few choices. 

This simplifies decision-making by emphasizing only the relevant options. Carefully constructed close-ended questions can thus optimize decisions requiring speed, clarity, and accuracy.

How to Phrase Close-Ended Questions 

1. Use Clear, Concise Wording

Close-ended questions should be phrased using simple, straightforward language that is easily understandable. 

Avoid complex sentence structures with convoluted phrasing. Instead, keep sentences short and to the point. Using clear, concise wording eliminates ambiguity and prevents multiple interpretations of the question. 

Technical jargon or unfamiliar terminology should not be included either, as this confuses respondents. The words chosen should be common terms that are unambiguous. 

Lengthy, wordy questions tax cognitive load, so brevity improves clarity. Respondents will have an easier time digesting and answering succinct close-ended questions devoid of complexity.

2. Limit Response Options

Experts generally recommend providing between 2-5 response options for close-ended questions. 

Too few options excessively limit choices, while too many options tend to overwhelm respondents with excessive cognitive load. Ideal close-ended questions will often have 3-4 choices. 

For example, Likert scale questions should avoid extremes like a 1-10 rating scale. A simpler 1-5 scale improves cognitive ease and clarity for respondents. 

Similar principles apply to multiple-choice questions. Sticking to 3-5 options provides sufficient choice without overburdening respondents. However, questions can sometimes warrant more options depending on the context and goals. The key is keeping options concise yet inclusive.

3. Avoid Ambiguous, Overlapping Choices

Care should be taken to avoid ambiguous, overlapping choices when creating close-ended question options. 

Responses should be distinct and mutually exclusive wherever possible to prevent confusion. Providing answer choices that are vague or could be interpreted multiple ways should be avoided. 

For example, asking respondents to select if they are more “outgoing” or “friendly” may cause mental overlap, as both can seem similar in meaning. 

Keeping choices delineated from each other aids comprehension. Use concrete words that have definitive meanings. Test questions on representative samples to identify any ambiguity.

4. Include Common or Likely Options

Close-ended response options should aim to provide realistic choices that reflect common or probable answers based on existing knowledge of what responses are most likely. 

Avoid including highly unrealistic or unlikely choices that do not resonate with respondents. The provided options should mirror what respondents would be apt to say if asked openly. 

This requires anticipating probable responses during survey design based on pre-testing and understanding the target audience. If important response categories are omitted, the question results will lack validity.

5. Consider an “Other” Option

Sometimes including an “Other” option can be useful to capture unanticipated responses that fall outside the pre-determined choices provided. 

However, use discretion, as excessive inclusion of “Other” diminishes the purpose of using close-ended questions to gain standardized responses. But having a release valve for novelty can be warranted in some cases, especially during pre-testing. 

Just ensure the “Other” option is indeed required rather than just lazy survey design. And give an open text box for respondents selecting “Other” to explain their answer.

When to Use Close-Ended vs. Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended to Start the Conversation

Beginning an interview or research conversation with open-ended questions allows respondents to provide broad, expansive information about their experiences, attitudes, and perspectives. 

Asking open questions like “Tell me about your background using X product” gathers rich, contextual insights without limiting or guiding the response. The flexible nature of open-ended questions enables understanding the full narrative before focusing in. 

They help identify themes to explore further. Starting with closed questions risks missing important contextual details, while open-ended questions cast a wide net. 

However, open-question responses can vary in focus, so they are best for initiating discussion before funnelling down with close-ended follow-up questions.

Close-ended to Focus the Conversation

After open-ended questions have provided a robust contextual foundation, introducing close-ended questions can sharpen the focus by gathering specific details of interest. 

For example, following an open question about user experiences with “On a scale of 1-5 how satisfied were you with X feature?” hones in on quantifiable data about a key variable. 

The combination elicits both a nuanced narrative and targeted metrics. 

Close-ended questions extract the precise information needed to understand topics and guide decision-making. They should follow up on open questions to drill down to critical data points.

Mix Both Types

Employing both open and close-ended questions together provides a comprehensive understanding of a topic by blending exploratory narrative with definitive data. 

Open questions uncover contexts, experiences and qualitative perceptions across a range of factors. Close-ended questions build on those insights to quantify key information like behaviors, attitudes and preferences. 

For example, an open question on frustrations followed by a close-ended question rating key pain points on a scale. Another technique is using open-ended follow-up questions like “Why did you choose that option?” after close-ended questions. Mixing question types leverages their complementary strengths.

Adjust Based on Goals

When constructing a conversation or research instrument, the kinds of questions used should align with the underlying goals and purpose. 

Open-ended questions enable free exploration and discovery when the aims are developing narratives, identifying new concepts or gaininginspirational insights. 

They are ideal for qualitative purpose. 

Close-ended questions provide focus and quantifiable data for decision-making, measurement and statistical analysis. 

Matching question style with desired objectives and outcomes ensures efficiency and optimization. Being clear on goals clarifies appropriate question design.

Potential Drawbacks of Close-Ended Questions and How to Mitigate 

1. Can Limit Depth/Details of Responses

A key drawback of close-ended questions is they can restrict respondents from providing elaborate, nuanced responses by narrowing options. 

This risks missing contextual insights and details that open questions could uncover. However, this can be mitigated by following up close-ended questions with additional open-ended probes. 

For example, after a multiple-choice question, ask “Could you explain the reasoning behind your choice?” or “Tell me more about that decision.” 

This enables the respondent to provide more textual depth and detail to illuminate their motivations. Close-ended questions will naturally limit narrative responses, but the inclusion of open-ended follow-up questions allows capturing of missing contextual information.

2. Risk Missing Unexpected Information

Due to their confined response options, close-ended questions have a risk of overlooking unexpected insights that fall outside the predefined answers. 

Respondents are limited to the provided choices, which may not match their personal experiences. 

This can be mitigated by including an “Other” option to encompass unanticipated responses. Additionally, supplementary open-ended questions at the end give the opportunity to share novel information not covered in the closed questions. 

For example, ending a survey with “Anything else you would like us to know?” invites additional feedback. Careful pre-testing can also help identify where “Other” options are needed to avoid missing data.

3. Perceived Lack of Flexibility

Respondents may sometimes feel intellectually confined by the rigid nature of close-ended questions with their restricted options. This could negatively impact engagement and motivation, limiting response quality. 

To mitigate, explain the reason for the close-ended format to provide intellectual transparency. For example, noting it helps simplify analysis. 

Also, reassure that there will be opportunities later for open-ended comments to share more. Maintain positive rapport by conveying interest in the respondent’s perspective. 

Close-ended questions are perceived as impersonal, so counteracting with warmth builds understanding. Where suitable, emphasised responses will be aggregated anonymously rather than individually analyzed.

Tips for Using Close-Ended Questions Skillfully

1. In Interviews/Conversations

When conducting interviews or holding conversations, it is often effective to start with open-ended questions that allow the respondent to provide context and overarching narrative about their experiences, perspectives, or background related to the topic. 

After this foundation is built, introduce close-ended questions to focus the discussion and extract precise details and data points of interest. Follow up the close-ended questions with additional open-ended probes like “Could you tell me more about that?” or “What factors influenced that decision?” to enable the respondent to elaborate on their responses. 

This provides well-rounded, comprehensive information by leveraging both the breadth of open-ended questions and the focused nature of close-ended.

2. In Surveys/Questionnaires

For surveys and questionnaires, close-ended questions should comprise most of the instrument for generating quantitative data that can be statistically analyzed. 

However, it is advised to also include some open-ended questions to gather qualitative insights that may be missed by close-ended questions alone. 

Limit the overall number of close-ended questions to avoid respondent fatigue. Excessive close-ended questions become tedious. Also order the questions thoughtfully by grouping related topics and going from broader, general questions first before delving into more narrow, specific ones. 

This improves flow and comprehension. Provide a mixture of open and close-ended while limiting the overall length to maintain engagement.

Frequently Asked Questions About Close-Ended Questions

1. Q: What are some examples of close-ended questions?

A: Some examples include yes/no questions, multiple choice questions, rating scale questions, ranking questions, and demographic questions that have pre-defined responses.

2. Q: How are close-ended questions different from open-ended questions?

A: Close-ended questions limit respondents to selecting from predefined options, while open-ended questions allow free-form responses.

3. Q: When should you use close-ended questions versus open-ended questions?

A: Use open-ended to start for broader information, then close-ended to focus on specific details. Adjust based on whether exploration or decisions are needed.

4. Q: What are the main benefits of asking close-ended questions?

A: Benefits include focusing conversations, gathering quantifiable/analyzable data, standardizing survey responses, requiring less respondent effort, and enabling decisive choices.

5. Q: What are some drawbacks or limitations of close-ended questions?

A: Drawbacks include less detailed responses, risk of missing unexpected insights, and perceived lack of flexibility for respondents.

6. Q: How many response options should you include in close-ended questions?

A: Experts recommend 2-5 response options. 3-4 is ideal in most cases to avoid too few or too many choices.

7. Q: What’s the best way to phrase close-ended survey questions?

A: Use simple, unambiguous wording. Avoid overlapping response choices. Order questions logically from general to more specific.

8. Q: How can you mitigate response bias in close-ended questions?

A: Randomize choices, avoid leading wording, include a “none of the above” option. Follow up with open-ended questions.

9. Q: Should close-ended questions always include an “Other” option?

A: Not always, as too many “Other” options diminishes the purpose of closed questions. Use judiciously when needed to capture unanticipated responses.

10. Q: Are close-ended questions appropriate for qualitative research?

A: They can be, but open-ended questions elicit richer qualitative insights. Close-ended questions help quantify qualitative data.

11. Q: How can open-ended questions complement close-ended questions?

A: Open-ended questions provide context, then close-ended focus in. Mixing types gathers comprehensive insights.

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