Editor's note: This blog was originally published in June 2017 and has since been updated for optimal accuracy and relevance.
A discussion guide is a list of topics, questions and tasks used in qualitative research. When conducting interviews or focus groups for your B2B research, whether capturing feedback on a product or carrying out buyer persona interviews, a discussion guide is a vital tool for ensuring you make the best use of your time and gain a greater level of insight.
Unlike a quantitative online survey with a series of closed-ended questions, a discussion guide is intended to be used as a reference tool for the moderator to ensure you cover off the key topics as defined in your research objectives. Questions don’t need to be read out word for word, and your guide should be flexible in allowing you to be reactive to what the respondent says.
In this blog, we outline the structure of a discussion guide and provide some useful tips for ensuring your discussion guide empowers you to get as much in-depth insight as possible from your B2B research.
How to structure your discussion guide
It’s useful to create the discussion guide with the thought of a conversation in mind rather than focusing on generating a list of questions. You want to think about the logical flow of the discussion. Ask yourself: what are the topics that should come first and what will flow naturally? Take a ‘funnel’ approach and start with broad, open questions, and then drill down into more specific areas, possibly with prompts rather than exact questions.
Think of the topic areas you want to cover and create them as separate sections. Then build your questions and prompts into these sections. Make sure you have a clear objective for each section and include this in the guide as a reminder to the moderator.
The purpose of this section is to introduce the research, explain how the session will work, and get respondents warmed up. Here's an example of the key things to cover off:
- Introduce yourself and thank the respondent for taking part
- Present the purpose of the research and why you are doing it (e.g. to improve services for customers)
- Reference how long the interview/focus group will take
- Briefly outline the topics you will be discussing
- Explain the format of the session (e.g. no right or wrong answers, informal discussion, use of audio recorder etc.)
- Reassure them that their answers are confidential and won’t be used publicly without their permission (assuming this is the case!)
- Prompt them to ask any questions they have before you begin
- Ask them to introduce themselves – the aim here is to get them warmed up to feel comfortable talking to you
You don’t want to dive straight into the detail; you want to build up to it.
For example, if you are exploring perceptions of your website with the aim of improving usability, you don’t want to go straight into asking them what they think of it. First, explore what they think makes a ‘great’ website and what they look for from websites of companies in your space. You may also want to understand how they heard about your website and how familiar they are with it.
This will be useful context for understanding their views of your website when you come to it later, and you will be able to refer back to the things they said.
Here you want to get into the focus of your research. You may choose to break this down into more than one section. Taking the website evaluation example, you may have sections on:
- ‘Overall reactions’ – explore likes/dislikes, ease of use, design, etc.
- ‘Detailed reactions’ – explore views of specific pages and features in turn
- ‘Opportunities for improvement’ – identify specific areas for developing the website that will better meet audience needs
Summary and reflection
Close the session by asking respondents to summarise their key thoughts.
It’s worthwhile having a few prompts here. For example, if testing reactions to new propositions you may ask, ‘Which proposition is most appealing to you and why?’ and ‘What three key things should x organisation take away from this session?’ (Hint: Consider filming this - with the respondents’ permission - and create ‘vox pops’ to bring your research to life).
- Keep the research aim and objectives top of mind when creating your guide
- Keep your guide simple so your primary focus is on the respondent
- Allocate time for each section so that you consider the pace of the interview
- Develop probes that will elicit more detailed and elaborate responses to key questions – these should be prompts, not exact questions
- Try the guide out on a colleague first – does the discussion move in a way that feels natural?
- Where possible ask respondents to talk through real-life examples – it can be difficult for people to know what they would do in hypothetical situations, and just because they say they behave a certain way, it doesn’t necessarily mean they do!
- Make focus groups interactive to keep respondents engaged - let them voice their opinion in different ways (e.g. voting with stickers) and organise team tasks
Preparation is key to conducting B2B research. A well-developed discussion guide will help you to feel confident that you will get the most out of your interviews or groups. Just the practice of creating the guide enables you to engage with the topic. But it’s important that you don’t feel wedded to your guide, and allow the conversation to flow naturally. Remember it is just that - ‘a guide’.