Don't be afraid to ask open questions

Sometimes I talk with organisations that consider it too challenging to ask open questions when seeking feedback from their customers or public. Instead they consider it safer to ask closed, tick the box survey questions.

Ironically, the reason often seems to be fear of their own success in collecting copious amounts of written information. They grapple with how they will analyse and synthesise it.

I get an image of a terrified analyst, working frantically like the engineer on the Titanic, desperately trying to contain the stream of ideas.

The potential loss of defaulting to tick the box questions is costly though, including: issues that tick the box surveys don’t cover aren’t considered; contributors are frustrated by not being able to say what they actually think; and complex issues don’t get explored in the depth necessary to understand them from the customer’s perspective.

There is no need to panic though – don’t deploy the life boats just yet! There are solutions available that support an open-ended questioning approach.

While number-based (quantitative) research has been simplified by statistical analysis packages such as SPSS, Matlab and SAS, so too has qualitative analysis.

The only difference is that the analysis process can be slightly more time consuming, but with dedicated software such as NVivo, MAXQDA or ATLAS.ti the time added is hours or days, not weeks. Similar to statistical analysis, there is a need to have analysis competency, but those skills can be gained in the same way that quantitative skills are.

Instead of it being too difficult or expensive to manage the feedback received, usually it is more costly if a wrong or ill-informed decision is made, by relying solely on closed survey question answers. If the decision is important enough, is it not appropriate to ask the questions to collect the information that will best inform your decision?

So don’t fear drowning in information, ask those open questions, and with the right tools and skills you can inform your important decisions with the insights you need.