Including open-end responses in a survey is always a great way to get information; types of information that weren’t touched upon in the script or answers that wouldn’t have previously been listed for a question.  It can be a great source for qualitative data within a quantitative survey.  Survey coding is the process of taking the open-end responses and categorizing them into groups.  Once coded, they can be analyzed in the same way multiple response questions can be.  The survey coding process can be very tedious in order to ensure reliable results.  After reading through 500 comments of your dissatisfied customers, you may feel like you need counseling, but the results will be invaluable to your company.  So ask your market research vendor to send you all of the open-end responses in an excel file at the conclusion of the fieldwork.

The survey coding process for open-end questions must be undertaken carefully, as responses can be open to judgment and interpretation of the individual.  The results can vary from person to person depending on what code you use for the open-ended comment.  The process can be very subjective, even though one may think market research analysis is meant to be objective.

Here are a few tips for survey coding:

  1. Read through all open-ended responses ahead of time.  This helps the analyst get a feel for the themes that are recurring in the data set.  It will also help the analyst understand how the population is responding to the specific survey question.  It can be surprising how many people answer an open-ended question in a similar fashion to one another without any guidance. 
  2. Start by creating a lot of categories before narrowing the field.  Once all of the categories are laid out and initially coded, begin to further combine the data to limit the analysis to about 8-12 codes.
  3. Make sure everyone’s comment counts.  A reporting standard for RMS is to create 8-12 all-encompassing survey coding categories, even if there are a few outliers that are lumped into the category of “Other,” they must be mentioned and/or footnoted.
  4. Create accurate and unambiguous codes, which cover the responses they apply to.  If someone were to look at the code title after reviewing a question, it should be clear what type of comments fell under it.  It may help to create a pop-out box in the report with further detail on the code with some explanation. For example, stay away from creating a category like “Service Related” – does that mean Customer Service? Billing Service? Service in relation to usage?
  5. Feel free to use more than one code.  Many times respondents offer multiple comments on a question spanning from topic A to topic Z.  If a response was limited to only one code, the respondent’s other areas of concern would be understated.
  6. Consider coding % of respondents rather than % of responses.  This will give an equal value to all responses.  This prevents those who express concern in multiple areas from overpowering those who had a single code response.

The responses to open-ended questions are the most raw and unaffected parts of survey analysis.  The questions are completely unaided, and respondents can say or write anything that comes to mind.  They are not limited to the selecting choices or guided in their response.  With open-ended questions you get a true sense for how the respondents feel.  At the same time, the survey coding can be compared and analyzed for more quantitative/ statistical analysis.  The process of reviewing all open-ends and survey coding has become an important standard in reports delivered by Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) and the results are always very rewarding for our clients.