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Creating a Discussion Guide

March 7, 2010

As I see it, discussion guides serve two important purposes:

  1. They facilitate communication between the moderator and the client by clarifying the flow and the amount of emphasis placed on each topic
  2. They serve as a quick reference tool for the moderator while conducting the research

It is important to keep in mind that the moderator covers the points in the discussion guide  in a natural conversational style and adapts the sequence and actual wording of the probes to the participant’s responses. He or she does not read it like a script.

The discussion guides I have seen vary widely in format but seem to fall into two main categories, those that are more scripted as opposed to those that are bulleted outlines. Scripts sometimes work better to help clients visualize the flow but outlines more effectively support moderators as a reference tool while conducting the actual groups or interviews.

I almost always use the outline format and my established clients, who are familiar with my moderation style, clearly find them to be adequate. I only use a script format when clients require the added narrative to visualize the flow of the group or interview. A first time client or one who is new to qualitative research are likely candidates for this more descriptive approach. In these cases I sometimes reduce the lengthy script document to an outline from which I work while conducting the groups, essentially creating two different discussion guides.

Here is a generic example of a short segment in scripted form of an introduction from a discussion guide:


Thank you for joining us today. My name is ___________ and I work for Next Step Consulting, an independent market research company. The purpose of our interview today is to gather your thoughts and opinions on the treatment of ???.  I would like to go over a few logistical points before we begin the interview:

  • The interview will last approximately one hour.
  • This interview is for market research purposes only. Please be assured that everything we discuss during this interview will be kept in strict confidence and your real name will not appear in any of our results. As such, please make every effort to be open and honest when responding to the questions.
  • For data capture purposes, this interview will be recorded on video and audio tape. I also have colleagues observing the interview from behind the one-way mirror. Others are watching on a webcast.

Here is a generic example of a short segment in outline form that covers similar information as the above example:


  1. Thanks
  2. Name, Company
  3. Purpose – Hear opinion about ???
  4. Logistics – Time, Confidentiality, Observe/Record

It is obvious that someone reading this type of outline document requires some experience with focus groups to visualize how this one will flow. In actuality, my outline style discussion guides are usually a bit more descriptive than the above example. Click here to see a generic sample of a discussion guide I used not long ago to test DTC television commercials with medical patients.

Here are a few guidelines to help create a useful discussion guide:

  • Begin with a cover page of logistical information. I always put a time table showing the start times for every section of the guide at the top. Depending on the study, I might also include the overall research schedule, the study objectives, information about the stimulus or reminders about set-up requirements.
  • Begin with a good introduction that outlines the objectives, expectations and makes all participants feel included. I think of what I do in this section as part of my moderating “signature” because many of the elements are similar regardless of the topic or industry.
  • Use the “funnel” analogy to help determine the flow of the main topics and the sequence of the questions in each section. Always begin with the most broad and general topics and questions (the wide opening of the funnel), before spiraling down to the more specific ones (the narrow end of the funnel).
  • Similar in effect to the “funnel” analogy, phrase questions in open-ended ways that ensure that the participants lead the way and are spontaneously raising the issues that are important to them. I often indicate in the guide that the following probes will only be used if the issue is not raised by the participants.

The creation of a focused and thorough discussion guide builds trust and confidence between the moderator and client and sets a solid foundation for the study that helps ensure a successful outcome. It also provides the basic logistical information to aid the moderator to set-up and conduct the group effectively.

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