Tips for writing a Discussion Guide

Structure your interview to make the most of your the time

Discussion guides are structured scripts to help take you through a one-to-one design research interview. They are both a place to collect all of the most important questions you want to ask and a timing plan to make sure you ask the most important questions in the time you have available.

One-to-one interviews are valuable time, you should plan thoroughly to get the most out of them and respect your participants time.

Work back from the time you have available

We prefer to interview people for at least 90 minutes, or better, 2 hours. Agree the time before the interview and plan back from the time you have available. Don’t leave your most important questions until the very end in case your interview gets cut short.

Although 2 hours might seem like a long time, once you’ve introduced yourself and the project, and then allowed time to get to know the participant, you’ll start to realise how quickly the time will go.

I’ve detailed the way we at IDEO might divide time up below, but there are many ways to use the time. Treat it like any other design challenge and think about it from the participant’s perspective.

Be precise with your timing

As you begin to structure your questions allocate time for each section. This will force you to consider the pacing of the interview, it also becomes a very useful reminder to keep you on time when you’re in the interview.

While developing your guide you should rehearse and test out sections to get a sense of how long each one will take. You may need to refine the timing when you get out into the field and see how long people actually take to answer each question.

Testing your guide out before the first interview will also help you spot any questions that people have trouble answering.

A simple structure

To show you how a discussion guide is constructed, i’ve broken down a two hour interview into a simple guide.

Introductions — 10 minutes
Introduce yourself, introduce the project, tell them why you’re interviewing people like them.

You should think about how soon you will introduce the precise topic of your research area, or your client’s name. We would usually introduce this at the beginning unless we feel that the client name might colour the participant’s responses.

Let the participant know what to expect during the interview and give them a chance to ask questions. Most people wont have been interviewed before so take the time to put them at ease, make eye contact and smile!

Getting to know your participant — 10 minutes
Start broad, ask them about their life, job, hobbies, family. Get them used to the process of being asked and answering questions. You don’t need to move toward your design challenge too quickly — aim to build up a rapport. Listen out for interesting facts in this early stage as they may guide later questions.

A great opening question is to ask your participant to describe a typical weekday and weekend day.

More focussed questions — 20 minutes
Crucially here, don’t jump straight to detailed questions around your brief. You should move toward the detailed area gradually; ask more specific questions but still keep things open. For example, a project doing research into festivals might gradually move toward the topic area by talking about music or other hobbies.

Detailed questions — 40 minutes
Now it’s time to get into the detailed questions around you brief. This time should be subdivided into smaller sections to keep the conversation varied and interesting.

The individual nature of your brief will guide how best to use this time, a simple way to break it down would be to cover four main areas giving each 10 minutes.

If you’d like a little help writing questions have a look at this post from the Design Research Methods collection: The Importance of How and Why.

Exercises — 30 minutes
To keep the interview engaging for the participant exercises can be a great way to liven things up. There are a wide range of exercises you can try with users, the Design Kit website has suggestion for some of the most successful ones that IDEO uses.

Plan questions around the exercise in the same way as you planned the questions in the rest of the discussion guide. Allow time to explain the exercises and if you have multiple, label them clearly — it can be difficult to quickly find all the pieces of a Card Sort exercise in the midst of an interview.

Exercises are an important way to help participants think more deeply about their own decisions and preferences. Keep an open mindset and observe both the decisions that participants make and the processes that got them to their decision.

Wrap up — 10 minutes
Tell the participant that the interview is over, give them a chance to ask any questions. Thank them for their time and explain what happens next. Leave your contact details with them in case they have questions once you’ve left.

Final thoughts

Your discussion guide should be seen as a starting place for a discussion and so letting conversations evolve around the guide is important. You may find that some questions don’t generate much discussion, or that answers are n’t guiding you towards inspiration — refine your guide as you go, but don’t change things in response to one individual interview.