How to Ask Better Questions | Mike Vaughan | TEDxMileHigh
What?: Asking the Right Questions
The Power Of Effective Questioning
The ability to ask open-ended questions is very important in many vocations, including education, counselling, mediation, sales, investigative work and journalism.
An open-ended question is designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and/or feelings. It is the opposite of a closed-ended question, which encourages a short or single-word answer. Open-ended questions also tend to be more objective and less leading than closed-ended questions (see next page).
Open-ended questions typically begin with words such as “Why” and “How”, or phrases such as “Tell me about…”. Often they are not technically a question, but a statement which implicitly asks for a response.
How do you feel?
Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) open-ended question is “How does this make you feel?” or some variation thereof. This has become a cliché in both journalism and therapy. The reason it is so widely used is that it’s so effective.
In journalism, stories are all about people and how they are affected by events. Audiences want to experience the emotion. Even though modern audiences tend to cringe at this question, it’s so useful that it continues to be a standard tool.
In psychology, feelings and emotions are central to human behaviour. Therapists are naturally keen to ask questions about feelings.
How to Ask Open-Ended Questions
Why Asking Open-Ended Questions Is Important
The most important benefit of open-ended questions is that they allow you to find more than you anticipate: people may share motivations that you didn’t expect and mention behaviors and concerns that you knew nothing about. When you ask people to explain things to you, they often reveal surprising mental models, problem-solving strategies, hopes, fears, and much more.
Closed-ended questions stop the conversation and eliminate surprises: What you expect is what you get. (Choose your favorite ice cream: vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate.) When you ask closed-ended questions, you may accidentally limit someone’s answers to only the things you believe to be true. Worse, closed-ended questions can bias people into giving a certain response. Answers that you suggest can reveal what you are looking for, so people may be directly or indirectly influenced by the questions. Don’t ask, “Does this make sense?” Ask, “How does this work?” and listen closely to discover how well the design communicates its function. Note users’ word choices, because it might help to use their terms in the interface.
Start open questions with “how” or with words that begin with “w,” such as “what,” “when,” “where,” “which,” and “who.”
Don’t start questions with “was” (an exception to the “w” tip) or other forms of the verbs “to be” and “to do.”
In general, avoid “why” questions, because human nature leads people to make up a rational reason even when they don’t have one. We normally ask “why” only about ratings, to tease out more open-ended feedback. Say “Please tell me more about that,” instead.
Aim to collect stories instead of one- or two-word answers.
Even when you must ask closed-ended questions, you can ask an open-ended question at the end, such as, “What else would you like to say about that?”
Adding Other __________ to a set of multiple-choice answers is also a good way to get open-ended feedback.
When to Ask Open-Ended Questions
- In a screening questionnaire, when recruiting participants for a usability study (for example, “How often do you shop online?”)
- While conducting design research, such as on
- Which problems to solve
- What kind of solution to provide
- Who to design for
- For exploratory studies, such as
- During the initial development of a closed-ended survey instrument: To derive the list of response categories for a closed-ended question, you can start by asking a corresponding open-ended question of a smaller number of people.
When To Ask Closed-Ended Questions
- In quantitative usability studies, where you are measuring time on task and error rates, and you need to compare results among users
- In surveys where you expect many (1000+) respondents
- When collecting data that must be measured carefully over time, for example with repeated (identical) research efforts
- When the set of possible answers is strictly limited for some reason
- After you have done enough qualitative research that you have excellent multiple-choice questions that cover most of the cases
Open ended questions. A closed–ended question contrasts with an open-ended question, which cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”, or with a specific piece of information, and which gives the person answering the question scope to give the information that seems to them to be appropriate.