Building Great Discussion Guides: How to Rethink the Most Important Part of Your Research Prep Process

Posted by Mitra Martin on Jan 19, 2021

Researchers, how much time are you setting aside to develop your discussion guide? In a busy world, it can easily become an afterthought. But, putting high-quality creative time into discussion guide development is one of the most high-leverage things you can do to contribute to high-quality insights. It can help you transform a pedestrian study into an experience that’s deeply connecting, satisfying, and illuminating — for stakeholders, participants, and yourself too. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you craft your next discussion guide. 

What is a discussion guide? Let’s define common terms.

A research study is a web of interconnecting questions that operate on different levels, directed to different audiences. We need to be clear about how our discussion guide fits into this web. A discussion guide is more than a list of questions. It's a specific instrument. Here are some useful distinctions: 

Research objectives:

Sometimes called “research questions,” research objectives represent the goals of the research. They frame the overall domain of insights you hope to uncover. Objectives may be written as questions (e.g., “What pain points do new users have when onboarding?”), or as statements (e.g., “To understand new users’ pain points when onboarding.”) 

Stakeholder questions:

When preparing for research as part of a cross-functional team, some researchers source questions from other team members. The result is a list of things those team members want to learn from the research. Sometimes this is referred to as “stakeholder questions” or, confusingly, “research questions.”

Research plan:

The term “research plan” is used in different ways by different organizations. Often, it refers to a sort of “primary document” that centralizes a variety of different pieces of information about the study, including research objectives, context from previous research, and the timeline — along with links to screeners, participant profiles, or other documentation. Often, the discussion guide is included or linked to in the research plan.

Discussion guide:

A discussion guide is an instrument designed to optimize the limited time we have with a participant, allowing for the exploration of all topics in a comfortable way. Pacing, timing, ordering, and craftsmanship of the guide must center the research objectives while also facilitating a warm, human experience for both the interviewer and the participant. It is a mix of scripted or semi-scripted statements or bullet point reminders, along with questions or question-like prompts offering areas to probe. It includes approximate and realistic time-allocations but always incorporates room for the unexpected. The guide helps the interviewer while they are moderating by providing an easy-to-use framework for the interview with visually scannable reminders about what is important.   

Here is a handy chart you can share with your stakeholders to show the distinction between these four instruments. 


Created by


Ideal format

Research objectives

Research owner

Builds stakeholder alignment on study purpose

3-5 bullet points

Stakeholder questions

All stakeholders, curated by research owner

Maximizes the research opportunity for the team by discovering their needs

Shared document with a list of questions contributed by team members

Research plan

Project manager, supported by other stakeholders

Centralizes information about the study

Document with a section related to each element of the study and links to more information

Discussion guide


Optimizes the limited session time to meet objectives comfortably 

2-3 page outline of discussion sections with specific bulleted questions and rough time allocations


Creating your discussion guide

The act of developing a discussion guide is essential preparation for the session itself. Imagine your participant and begin the process of attuning to them. Try to look at reality through their eyes, to think through their thoughts. Reach into their world and ask yourself: how is my participant going to experience the session? Am I speaking their language? What is their POV?

Writing the guide and crafting your questions helps you imagine the human you’ll be interviewing, prepare for the session, and get ready to improvise with the perfect probing questions and follow-ups that arise from the unexpected. It is an essential step in kindling a feeling for your participant that will energize the whole session and yield richer conversation and ultimately, deeper insights. Doing this with care and heart will also make you less likely to reproduce organizational blinders in your conversation, ensuring you sidestep preconceived assumptions and narratives.

It takes time, concentration, and imagination to transform objectives and stakeholder questions into questions that facilitate connection. Here are some examples of stakeholder questions transformed into participant-facing questions. 

Stakeholder question

Participant-facing question

Which messaging apps do our customers regularly use and why? 

Tell me a little about your closest friends

How do you stay connected with them? 

How has this changed due to COVID?

Will business decision makers use this new feature?

What are your goals for your company?

How has this product helped you with them so far? 

Tell me about who you think this is for? 

Do power users like the new design?

What stands out to you about this overall?

Tell me about how this compares with the last time you were here, if you can recall


Best practices: 

  • Try to ensure the moderator develops the discussion guide themselves, based on a full and thorough understanding of context, research objectives, and stakeholder questions.
  • When, as a moderator, you receive a pre-written discussion guide from someone else, take the time to write your own discussion guide based on your understanding of the objectives. Even if you don’t use it, it will help you moderate.

The flow of a discussion guide

Creating a comfortable experience for a participant is not only the right thing to do, it's the best way to really reach them and their experience to get valuable insights. Unfortunately, it's easy to overlook the importance of something as subtle and organic as “flow” in the often rushed process of pulling together a discussion guide, when the focus tends to be more on content. 

When studies have many objectives, there is a temptation to pack more and more content into the session than fits in the allotted time. Flow is the first thing out the window. As more gets packed into the session, it's easy to forget the need to save a few minutes to establish rapport, create transitions, and come to closure. And, for multi-topic studies there may be pressure to order topics based on criteria other than the participant's comfort, such as wanting a particular team's questions to be first. 

Don’t shortchange flow. It’s not worth it. A disjointed, mechanical, hurried flow doesn't support organic connection, can rattle a participant, and sacrifices the quality of the sessions, despite everyone's best interests. Engage your team with the following rules of thumb, reminding them that following them will serve the overall objectives:

  1. Don't limit the introduction. Make it spacious and include contextual questions. Use this time to honestly get to know the participant. 
  2. Move from the most abstract content to the least abstract, and from the most complex to the simplest. 
  3. Once rapport is built, move from the most emotional content to the least emotional.
  4. Embrace improvisation once the interview begins. 
  5. Do not ask or rely on participants to donate extra, unpaid time to your organization. 

In short, design for flow — and be willing to adjust the flow real-time, during the session. This provides a more comfortable, relevant, and often, more revealing interaction with the participant and whatever material you're exploring.

To learn more about session flow and moderation techniques, check out our UX Research Moderator’s Rubric.

Criteria for a great discussion guide

At AnswerLab, we partner with teams who need insights on many, many topics very quickly. Team members have access to different sources of data, are curious about different things, have different needs and hopes. There is an art to compressing 13-page lists of 157 questions into a usable framework for a successful 60-minute interview that will please everyone. Fully understanding the purpose of the research enables us to (sometimes overnight!) transform incoming questions at a variety of different levels of abstraction into an experience that everyone will love — the stakeholders, researcher, and the participant. 

The session post-it

The structure of your research interview should fit on a single post-it, your "steering wheel" for the study, compressing all the preparation you've done into a clear plan: 4-5 areas of exploration with rough time allocations. If there are more sections than your post-it note can fit, consider how you might combine or adapt them — or shift them to other studies.

A concise outline

Your post-it should be built from a more detailed moderator-crafted discussion guide document, which often takes the form of an outline. Your outline is usually 2-3 pages long, with section headers and bullets with questions, and key prompts. This is crafted based on a thorough understanding of the research objectives, the stakeholder questions, and any other discussion guide drafts or skeletons that have been provided. 

Being disciplined about approaching a discussion guide this way supports reproducibility. When a guide is too complicated and unwieldy, it’s harder to ensure that the most important things will be consistently addressed across sessions. Boiling down a lengthy catalog of questions to a concise, human-centered outline makes it easier to stay connected with the core research goals from session to session. Although exact wording and even order will likely flex, the “steering wheel” post-it will ensure the session gets to its destination in time.

Take your discussion guides to a new level

To take your discussion guides to a new level, think carefully about fine-tuning your process for creating guides. Try some of these takeaways:

  • Be sure you fully understand the research objectives. Ask clarifying questions. Re-read the objectives often, including several times immediately before the session and between sessions.

  • Schedule high-quality, focused time to develop your discussion guide. 
    • Give yourself time to synthesize stakeholder questions, acquaint yourself with the subject matter, use the product, and talk with others who know more. 
    • Brainstorm on possible areas of inquiry and exercises. 
    • Explore the system you're researching so you understand the user's flow through that interface. 
    • When your session includes specific tasks, provide a larger context by offering a relatable real-world scenario for those tasks. This will help make the flow more meaningful for participants, and you'll get better results.
    • While most discussion guides are not intended to be precisely scripted, you may need to include 'verbatim' questions or directions, depending on your objectives.
  • Don't be afraid to push back. If you’re getting a lot of asks, facilitate conversations about the core objectives and tradeoffs that will enable you to deliver superb results. There may not be room for everything, and cramming too much in can compromise the outcome.

  • Do mock interviews early in the process to refine your guide. Practicing with someone else gives you clear insight into whether your guide will facilitate flow. If this isn’t possible, minimally build in time for a thoughtful peer-review of your discussion guide.

  • Champion the importance of space. A 60-minute session has at most 50-55 minutes of research content. Leave room for a spacious introduction, contextual getting-to-know-you questions, relaxed transitions and room for improvised probing, and a moment for reflection and closure.

Feeling confident in your discussion guides? Next, take your moderating skills to the next level with our UX Research Moderator's Rubric.

Written by

Mitra Martin

Mitra Martin is a UX Researcher at AnswerLab where she leads research to help fortune 500 clients identify and prioritize insights that improve their business results.

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