Creating an effective discussion guide for your User Research
A good discussion guide is arguably the most important part of your testing plan. It is the map that will lead you the learnings you need, and will help ensure that your research sessions are productive. Discussion guides can take many forms — some will be tight scripts that you will follow closely, and some will be rough outlines that act as a quick reference tool for the person conducting research. In our experience, a discussion guide that falls somewhere in the middle is preferable. Either way, their purpose is to keep research focused, and moving towards a the learning objectives you’ve outlined.
What does a discussion guide consist of?
A discussion guide is a set of questions/tasks/topics that you, the researcher, wish to walk a research participant through in order to reach your learning objectives. They will facilitate the conversation between you and the participant, and dictate its ebbs and flows. Do you want to emphasize one part of the test more than another? The discussion guide will reflect this in the questions you include.
Interview-based research is organized by topics, whereas screen-based research is focused on tasks. You questions should be separated by topic/task to make it easy to skim and use.
How to structure it
The best discussion guides move from easy and specific questions, to more difficult, higher-level ones. Starting with “softball” questions will help the research participant get comfortable, and get in the habit of speaking their mind. Once you’ve worked through the standard questions, it’s best to move onto questions specific to the learning objectives at hand. If you are testing with a prototype, this is often where you’d ask questions and run through tasks that deal with it. Finally, you work towards open-ended questions that may be more difficult cognitively for the research participant. A typical discussion guide will loosely follow this format:
Here you introduce the rules of the research session, and set expectations for what it will be like.
These are the aforementioned “softball” questions that help provide context for later questions you will ask. They often fall into the demographic category (e.g. Name? Age? Where do you work? Where do you live? etc).
Questions related to the stimuli you are presenting the user. If there are no stimuli to show (i.e. it is basic ethnographic research), this is the section where you would ask questions related to the user’s experience within the specific topic area you are studying.
Those questions that require some thinking from the participant. For example, questions like “based on what you’ve seen today, would you sign up for _____?” or “what is missing from this prototype, in your opinion?” fall into this category.
How to use it
Don’t be a slave to your discussion guide! It’s just that, a “guide”. The goal should be to have a directed conversation that flows naturally. The guide should help facilitate this conversation and act as a reference tool for the researcher. It is not meant to be a completely prescriptive script that you must follow to the letter. You do not have to go through the discussion guide in perfect order — as a researcher, you should react to what your user is saying, and move to related questions to keep the flow natural. And you do not have to only ask questions included in the guide — if you’re on a topic that is related to your learning objectives but doesn’t have the right question for the moment at hand in the guide, make one up! A skilled researcher should be able to react to what the participant is saying on the fly, and use it to create the most effective insights possible.