How can I ask high quality questions

Asking the right question

“42” is the supercomputer's answer to the “question about life, the universe and all the rest” in Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The only problem is, no one knows what the question is. There is a significant truth in this joking episode: questions that are not asked precisely produce meaningless answers. The exact formulation of a question is therefore important - especially if it is a question that is the focus of a group discussion or consultation.

In theory, a distinction is made between open and closed questions. Closed questions can be used to find out specific information, opinions or preferences. The answers to closed questions are usually short. Often the respondents are asked to choose between two or more fixed answers or to answer with the help of a rating scale. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, do not contain any ready-made answers. They usually start with classic question words like “what”, “how”, “where” or “why”.

So which question type is suitable for a consultation with Insights?

Fortunately, many researchers in the empirical social sciences have racked their brains over the two types of questions and so we can benefit from their findings. A look at the literature shows that empirical social research recommends largely closed questions for reasons of efficiency, but that open questions are better suited than consultation questions in the context of the Insights method.

As early as 1976, the sociologists Schuman and Presser empirically investigated whether the answers to open and closed questions were systematically different. As you'd expect, they found that open-ended and closed-ended questions actually tend to provide different response patterns. Using these differences, they worked out the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of questions.

A question of control

A clear advantage of the open-ended question is that it leaves the respondent in complete control of the answer. There is hardly any risk of manipulating the respondent's answer with the question asked, since the question does not contain any predefined suggested answers. When answering an open-ended question, the respondent has to make up his own mind and so it is more likely that he will give an answer that really corresponds to his own opinion than if he has to choose between several suggested answers.

This is the decisive advantage for consultations in participation processes with Insights. For a successful consultation it is important that there is an opportunity to actually influence the upcoming decision. For this to happen, the participants - not the decision makers - need to be in control of their responses. A closed question cannot provide the decision-makers with surprising answers because they have drafted the suggested answers themselves. In addition, consultations with insights are usually future-oriented. For example, within the framework of a consultation with Insights, a new recycling concept has already been developed or the future viability of rural regions has been designed. Questions about the future always require an interpretation of the question. However, this can vary from person to person. Open-ended questions allow participants to express their own interpretation of the respective goals, while closed-ended questions mask such differences.

A question of analysis

One advantage of closed questions is that the answers to closed questions can usually be easily coded and are therefore well suited for quantitative analysis. However, this is not relevant for the Insights method because it works without quantitative analyzes. Instead, the participants are given small analytical tasks, which enable a high-quality and fast, qualitative analysis. In this way, the most important findings can be extracted from the answers without neglecting valuable content-related contributions.

A question of interpretation

The choice between open and closed questions can also be a decision about who should interpret the content of the question and extract the relevant answer (Iarossi 2006, p. 73). Open questions are answered by the respondent in their own words and must be interpreted by the questioner in order to extract the key messages from them. Closed questions are interpreted by the respondent themselves and then assigned to one or more of the suggested answers.

When consulting with Insights, each participant is asked to highlight the key points of their response. Thus, it is the participants themselves who extract the relevant information from their answers, which guarantees the authenticity of the interpretation. This also means that open questions are better suited for consultations with insights. The analysis method of Insights overcomes the superficial disadvantages of the open question and underlines its advantages. We therefore recommend that our project partners always use the open-ended question type when initiating a participation process.

Examples of consultations that have already been carried out can be found here.

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Swell:

Schuman, H. & Presser, S. (1977) "Question wording as an independent variable in survey analysis."Sociological Methods & Research 6, no.2: 151-170.

Schuman, H. & Presser, S. (1979) "The open and closed question."American sociological review: 692-712.

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