Structured vs. Unstructured Questions

Surveys fall under the realm of quantitative market research. Focus groups, depth interviews, projective techniques, etc. conversely fall under the realm of qualitative research. Both certainly have their purpose and each other’s strengths compliment the other’s weaknesses.

Focusing on surveys there are two types of questions we as survey authors have in our quiver. Structured questions are our workhorse. This question line relies on closed-ended categories pre-selected by the researcher. There are two primary advantages to structured questions:

  1. They require a lower cognitive load on the respondent. They reduce the amount of thinking that a respondent needs to undertake to complete the task. This generally leads to higher response and more accurate data.
  2. They are easier for the researcher to code and analyze. This is of tremendous importance, especially if you are a research shop of one.

Structured questions take many forms and include:

  • Single response with nominal or ordinal categories (e.g. From the following list please select the category which includes your household income)
  • Multiple response (e.g. From the following list of pizza toppings please any or all that you regularly use)
  • Scaled questions (e.g. The President is doing a good job – Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree), and
  • Numerous variations on these primary types.

Unstructured questions are a bit more qualitative in feel. They do not require pre-defined categories and they allow the respondent to express their views openly. This is their blessing and their curse. Open-ended questions, as they are also known, produce a higher cognitive load in the sense that the respondent has to think harder to come to an answer. This can create a lower response rate and sometimes lesser quality data. On the other hand, they can produce rich insights that provide depth and color to the black and white of structured questions.

Open-ended questions require additional time on the part of the researcher to analyze and code the responses although text-mining software is making this easier. For best results on a survey,keep open-ended questions to a minimum and use them as sub-questions driven by critical responses to a structured question. For example, if someone selects a high or low response to the Net Promoter Score, you can follow up with unstructured questions asking the respondent to elaborate on their score.

By Greg Timpany