Creating a qualitative research discussion guide

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.

Step 1: Know the goal and the essential question

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?

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 and details will differ depending on the specific project goals.)

Step 2: 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. 

What to include in this stage:

  1. The purpose of the study and the length of the interview (be sure to keep the client name out if the study is being done blindly).
  2. Confidentiality details: If it’s being recorded, how it will be used and what information will be shared with whom.
  3. The length of the study.
  4. 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 icebreaker 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: Ask general questions about the topic

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

The next goal is to set the scene by asking general questions about the topic. This phase helps build empathy and 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. A favorite one that I typically do at this stage – if I’m leading groups – is 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. It also gives the moderator context and helps them be grounded in the category knowledge or opinions.

Step 4: Ask specific questions and conduct activities

Once 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: Close the interview

As the interview winds down, this is where the researcher has a chance to share the brand name 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)? 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 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.

Discussion guides are important

To close, expect to spend five to eight 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.