The power of the open ended question

No matter what you are designing; from a policy, product or service, understanding your users by asking the right kind of questions is an essential part of project design.

When international footballer, Eric Cantona, former Manchester United captain, recently accepted the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) President’s award he gave an unexpected response to the question, “what’s going on in your mind right now?”

Now this clip is well worth a listen for many reasons, even if you don’t follow football.

  • It is clearly someone sharing something he has thought deeply about,
  • His response is a great conversation starter, 
  • It is amazingly funny to watch Cristiano Ronaldo’s reaction in the crowd (around the 40 second mark, and again – even if you don’t know or care who Ronaldo is the facial expression is priceless), and more importantly,
  • It also demonstrates how powerful open ended questions are.

Open ended questions are phrased to enable you gain deep empathy and different perspectives by requiring a thoughtful response. On the flip side, a closed question elicits a single word or short response, such as yes or no. In this example, the presenter didn’t limit Cantona’s response with a closed question such as, “are you proud to win this award”, giving little space for a thoughtful response. Instead, he asked, “what’s going on in your mind right now”, and off Cantona went. He told us all what was on his mind. And it was great!

At Astrolabe, we spend a lot of time with our clients exploring how to get to the deeper needs and motivations of their users.

We do this because the best solutions come from insights into human behaviour. Interviews are the perfect tool for this approach. They allow you to engage early in projects to find intervention points and possible solutions as well as a method to validate your work as it progresses and to seek feedback.

Interviews should be designed to be personal, to seek stories and talk about feelings. They are built around open ended questions.

In the art of asking questions, IDEO’s Sarah Dzida says open ended questions invite a truer response. They tell the person you are talking to that you want to know more substantial things about them. Open ended questions imply that you want to hear what the other person has to say.

Open ended questions allow for longer conversations. Using “why,” “how”, “tell me more” and “how did that make you feel” as part of an interview means the person can talk more, often getting to the  crucial and honest responses.

Whether you are doing formal engagement in a project or at your next office meeting, give some thought to using open ended questions. If you happen to get an unexpected response, take advantage of those moments. A little bit of digging and you may have found the beginning of your next big idea.

Belinda Comninos is the CEO at Astrolabe Group. She is passionate about collaborating with users across a project lifecycle. She has developed her approach to human centred design at Stanford University’s and the Centre for Social Impact. She is a fan of Liverpool Football Club and loves watching the game with her family, even if she doesn’t really know any of the rules.

If you’d like to know more about how we use interviews as part of project design, contact [email protected]