Open versus Closed Ended Questions

In the Reference Environment

Prepared by Dr. John V. Richardson Jr.

UCLA Professor of Information Studies


My vision is that information studies graduate students will learn the best practices related to interviewing techniques in the reference environment.  The goal of the reference interview is to understand the user’s query.  The two-fold objective is to get the inquirer to express their information need or problem and to have a satisfied user at the end of the transaction.  Hence, the task at hand is to use the proper balance of open and closed-ended questions and to use these questions in the right sequence.


1.  Open-ended questions are those questions that will solicit additional information from the inquirer.  Sometimes called infinite response or unsaturated type questions.  By definition, they are broad and require more than one or two word responses.  Note that neutral questions are merely a subset of open questions, according to Dervin and Dewdney.  
    1. How may/can I help you?
    2. Where have you looked already?
    3. What aspect are you looking for?
    4. What kind of information are you looking for?
    5. What would you like to know about [topic]?
    6. When you say [topic], what do you mean?
    7. What do you mean by [topic]?
    8. What further clues can you give me?
    9. What examples can you give me?
    10. What is it you want to know about?
    11. How will you use this information?
    12. How will this information help you?
    13. What will it help you do?
    14. Where did you read or hear about [topic]?
    15. Tell me how this problem arose?
    16. What happened that got you stopped?
    17. What are you trying to understand?
    18. Where else have you searched?


Pros: Open-ended questions develop trust, are perceived as less threatening, allow an unrestrained or free response, and may be more useful with articulate users.  Cons: Can be time-consuming, may result in unnecessary information, and may require more effort on the part of the user.


2. Closed ended questions are those questions, which can be answered finitely by either “yes” or “no.”  Also known as dichotomous or saturated type questions.   Closed-ended questions can include presuming, probing, or leading questions.  By definition, these questions are restrictive and can be answered in a few words. 



a.      Can I help you?

b.      May I help you?

c.       Can you give me more information?

d.     Have you searched elsewhere?

e.      Can you describe the kind of information you want?

f.        Can you give me an example?

g.      Could you be more specific?

h.      Are you looking for [topic]?

i.        Would you tell me more about [topic]?

j.        Would you explain [topic]?

k.      Is there something specific about [topic], you are looking for?

l.        Do you have a citation?

m.   Is there any other information that you need?

n.      Is there any thing else that I can help you find?

o.      Does that help you out or does this help or will this search help you?

p.     Do you need more clarification?

q.      Is that correct/right/ok?

r.       How is this?

s.       Shall we continue?

t.        Any other/further questions?

u.     Is that what you are looking for?

v.      Does this answer your question?


Pros:  Quick and require little time investment, just the answer.  Cons: Incomplete responses, requires more time with inarticulate users, can be leading and hence irritating or even threatening to user, can result in misleading assumptions/conclusions about the user’s information need; discourages disclosure.


SOURCE:  Examples above are derived from a first-hand analysis of LSSI’s database of reference transcripts (through 2 May 2002) as well as a reclassification of examples from Jennerich and Jennerich (1987), p. 14; Ohio Reference Excellence (2000), p. 8; and Dervin and Dewdney (1986), p. 509.