how to write a discussion guide

In qualitative research, the discussion guide is the fundamental document that outlines the questions that the interviewer asks a participant or group of participants.

In this post, I’m going to focus on discussion guides that are used in interview-based research, and not on platforms (for example, mobile ethnography platforms, bulletin boards, or online diaries). Although, keep in mind that the best platform-research ends with an in-depth interview or group discussion, so a discussion guide will come after the first phase.

Discussion guides are fundamental to good interviewing. Moderators often have various techniques with how they use guides (some digest the key questions they need to know and skip around, others follow the question outline closely), but most moderators will agree that setting up your questions first is the key to a good interview.

Before I get started and dive into the key components every discussion guide has, let me first say that discussion guides are not a script. They’re a guide – and the key to being a good moderator is to know how to let participants go on tangents and when to guide people back to the core questions. Rarely, though, are guides read through verbatim.

Step 1 to writing a good discussion guide: First, know the goal of the research and the essential question

There is a lot of pre-work that has to happen before a discussion guide ever gets written. This includes understanding the core goals of the research, defining the outputs, and aligning the stakeholders. Our process for this stage is to conduct workshops on Miro with stakeholders, but everyone has their own methods.

This initial stage is where the researcher will define what I like to call “the essential question.”

In other words, if you could only learn one thing from the research, what would it be?

Additionally, you’ll want to clearly label and record the various hypotheses that are being tested. Once you know this – and the team is aligned – you’ll be able to choose the methodology, define the participant criteria, and, once everyone has signed off, start on the guide. (Keep in mind this is a general description of qualitative projects, but of course the details will differ depending on the specific project goals.)

Step 2 to writing a good discussion guide: The introduction

When a moderator begins a research discussion, the introduction is critical. This is the part where the moderator builds rapport with the participant and sets the scene. Be sure to include the following in this stage:

          Purpose of the study and length of the interview (be sure to keep the client name out if the study is being done blindly)

          Confidentiality details: If it’s being recorded, how it will be used, and what information will be shared with whom

          Length of the study

          Ground rules (this is mostly used in focus groups or co-creation groups): Not trying to build consensus, letting everyone speak, participants can discuss ideas with each other as well as the moderator

Once the key expectations are covered, it’s then good to add in a sort of ice-breaker or non-study related question to get the group members or the individual participant to relax. For example, you can ask people what their dream car is or where they most want to travel. I typically try to tie the ice-breaker question to the study theme.

Step 3 to writing a good discussion guide: General questions about the topic

Discussion guides can be seen as an upside-down triangle: Start general at the top (broad at top) and get narrower as you go along.

In this second section, the next goal is to set the scene: Ask general questions about the topic and participant(s). This phase helps build empathy and also slowly invites the participant(s) into the topic. A key component here is that you want the participants to define and name their perceptions of the category before you name it. This is a great opportunity to add in projective techniques. One favorite one that I typically do at this stage – if I’m leading groups – is to do an association exercise. I’ll write down a few words related to the topic on a board and have everyone write down all the associations they have with the category on sticky notes. They first write it down individually, so as not to bias each other – and then we collect the stickies and discuss as a group. This brings everyone in and sets the tone. Importantly, it also gives the moderator context and helps the moderator to be grounded in the category knowledge or opinions.

Step 4 to writing a good discussion guide: Specific questions and activities

Once the participants have defined the category and the researcher has “set the scene,” the discussion guide then moves into the next section: the specifics. If the study is a user test, this is where the moderator has the participant move through the product design. If it’s a focus group, the researcher will start to hone-in on the Essential Question that was defined at the outset of the study. This is where moderator training is so crucial: Good moderators know how to probe, guide, and ask non-leading questions – while still capturing how people think, feel, and do. Projective techniques and exercises are also commonly used in this phase.

Step 5 to writing a good discussion guide: Closing the interview

As the interview winds down, this is where the researcher has a chance to share the brand name (if the study is blind in the beginning but not 100% blind) to test perceptions. If it’s a completely blind study, this last phase of the discussion guide is to close-the-loop. For example, how would the participant rate the concepts? Where would the participant expect to purchase the product? What type of media outlets does the participant pay attention to (to test brand placement)? Or how is the decision-making done at an organization (to understand the buying process). The closing section is crucial as it allows the moderator to then capture more direct responses without leading the participant, since the categories and initial perceptions/ideas were captured organically – with the participant defining the terms – in the very beginning of the interview.

The discussion guide is crucial: Spend time on this step!

To close up, expect to spend 5-8 hours developing your discussion guide. How the questions are set up, the order of the questions, and, super important – the exercises included in the interview – require creativity and thought to put together. 

Once the guide is together, practice and know it well – this will help you skip around if the participant brings up topics before you get to them. When appropriate, be able to skip around as well as probe on ideas that are the most pertinent to the study’s objectives.

Interested in learning more about moderating and writing discussion guides? Sign up for a qualitative research training workshop today >