Editor’s note: Joanna Jones is the CEO and founder of InterQ and co-founder of InterQ Learning Labs. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “How to write a discussion guide for qualitative research.”

In qualitative research, the discussion guide is the fundamental document that outlines the questions that the interviewer asks a participant or group of participants. This article focuses on discussion guides that are used in interview-based research, 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 diving 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.

There is a lot of pre-work that must happen before writing a discussion guide. 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 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?