Once the content of individual questions is decided researchers are ready to begin forming the actual questions. Before they can work on the wording of each question, they must decide on the type of question to use. Part of this decision is whether to use disguised or non-disguised, structured or unstructured questioning. These tend to be issues of general research strategy. But individual questions may have different degrees of structure. The three main types of questions from least structured to most structured are (1) open (2) multiple choice and (3) dichotomous.
Open Questions: What industries are your best potential markets for hydraulic equipment? How many families occupy this home? How long have you had this piano? Why do you smoke Marlboro cigarettes? Each of these is an example of an open or free answer question. Respondents are free to answer in their own words and express any ideas that they think pertinent. No alternatives are suggested. Three of the four examples would probably result in short answers. The questions on cigarettes might draw a lengthy discussion that interviewers would have to record verbatim or attempt to summarize.
Open questions are good as first questions they introduce the subject and obtain general reactions that are relatively uninfluenced by the question itself. If the question is left especially wide open, almost every respondent will be able to give some answer and will thus begin to warm up to the questioning process. In a survey on cable television the following was the first question: In general, how do you feel about cable television? The question acquaints the respondent with the subject of the survey, gets general attitudes that may be helpful in later interpretation of results, and opens the way for more specific questioning on cable television.
Open questions influence the answers obtained less than multiple choice or dichotomous questions. A survey on shaving habits among men might ask. With what type of instrument do you shave? Or a multiple choice question might be used: Do you shave with a safety razor, straightedge razor, or electric shaver? The latter suggests alternatives and may as a result, influence the answers obtained. The open question does not suffer from this weakness.
As the open question suggests no answers the variety of answers obtained is often extreme. Take the question: What are the things you look for in buying a suit? The researcher could list number of the answers that would be forthcoming – color, style, price and so on. But some respondents will mention items that are not likely to occur to the researcher. Thus the open question is particularly useful in exploratory research where new ideas and relationships are sought. On the basis of the replies received in the exploratory study, the researcher may be able to establish the alternative answers that appear and use them in a multiple choice question in further research.
Despite these advantages of open questions, certain disadvantages limit theirmmm usefulness. A principal weakness is the large degree of interviewer bias they permit. Interviewers may be instructed to record answers to open questions verbatim or to set down the main points mentioned by respondents. In either instance the interviewers’ reports will vary. Interviewers skilled in shorthand will get down every word; other interviewers will have to ask respondents to give their answers phrase by phrase if they are to get each word. Obviously in the latter case the interview will drag and respondents will lose interest. Answers given a few words at a time will differ from answers given in more or less normal conversation. If interviewers are told to digest replies, bias is even more likely. Interviewers interpret the replies they receive in terms of their ideas. The result is a mixture of interviewer and respondent rather than respondent alone. Where verbatim reporting is important, tape recorders may be used.