October 23, 2022

How to write a discussion guide for more impactful user interviews

This post covers why and how using a good discussion guide helps UX researchers better uncover insights from their user interviews, which ultimately leads to positive research outcomes.

UX Research

As a UX researcher, it’s critical that you learn to ask better questions that peel away at the problem you are trying to understand. When you have a good discussion guide at hand, you are more likely to uncover insightful information that will lead to good research outcomes.

In this post, we'll dive deeper into the following topics:

1. Why you should have a  discussion guide ready before conducting user interviews

2. How you should structure your discussion guide to avoid fluff and instead uncover key insights during user interviews .

3. How to best use the discussion guide, yet remain flexible during user interviews

As we go deeper into these concepts, you will realise that having a discussion guide ready before your user interviews not only saves time and energy, but also helps you get better answers to your research questions.

What is a Discussion Guide?

A discussion guide serves as a roadmap to build on a series of questions, talking points, and specific topics that contribute to your research goals. But before even writing this document, it’s vital that you start by writing down the goals for your research.

The whole point of having a discussion guide is for you to have a clear vision of your learning objectives and keep the session productive. Discussion guides are an essential tool for UX Research; they are used during the discovery (aka generative research), prototyping phase, or the usability testing phase of the design process.

What’s inside a UX Discussion Guide?

A discussion guide is broken into 3 distinct parts: an introduction followed by warming up questions, exploratory questions, and a wind-down brief.

A well-curated guide helps an interviewer uncover critical nuggets of information that help a team or company gain a much deeper understanding of the problem they are researching. This deeper understanding eventually leads to the formulation of better solutions that address the challenges that users face.

A discussion guide is usually composed of open-ended questions to elicit unbiased answers from the participant. It also helps capture a broader perspective for very targeted questions. Without a dedicated UX discussion guide, the focus might get blurry, causing the user interview to go down the rabbit hole.

How should you Structure a Discussion Guide?

First things first, a discussion guide is meant to be followed as a roadmap and not a stringent blueprint. The document aims to help you, not restrict you. Being flexible with your approach gives you room to explore topics that wouldn’t have come up if you were too intensely following the script.

Start with an introduction and make participants feel safe
To kick off the interview, it’s crucial to put the participant at ease. An anxious participant is unlikely to answer your questions with a clear head and may derail your research findings as a consequence. As a UX researcher, it’s your responsibility to make sure that your participants feel safe.

You can start by introducing yourself. Let them know why you are having this interview with them. What are you going to talk about today? How does their role fit into the bigger picture? Let them know there is a confidentiality clause and they can trust you with the information they are sharing. Don’t forget to emphasise how the participants' time is valuable to the overall success of your project.

These will give the participant enough confidence to answer your questions as honestly as they can.

Slide into warm up questions to build trust and comfort

After having them gain confidence in you, it’s time to make them comfortable. This will happen when you talk to them about them.

For example, get to know their basic information like name, age, background, education, etc, and slowly transition to questions about their lifestyle, hobbies, motivations, aspirations, etc.

Set the tone, voice, approach, and intentions of the discussion right by asking them comfy questions and slowly dipping their toes into the tougher questions. This lets them speak their hearts and minds out.

The minute you see a satisfactory nod and a tinge of a smile in them, it’s your cue to loosen up a bit and get started with exploratory questions!

They trust you now and feel comfortable.

Shift the talk towards exploratory questions
After having your participant warmed up, you can crank things up a notch. You can go deeper into details around your project and ask them specific questions. This might include questions that are related to a process within your app/website, or you can ask them to perform a task like sign up or sign in and can capture how easy or tricky it was to perform for them.

In short, these kinds of questions will help you collect meaningful insights about your research, which for instance can later help in enhancing the overall user experience of your end product in the long run.

Because the discussion guide is not meant to be prescriptive, you must be ready to explore conversation pathways that you may not have planned for if you feel the participant has an important observation or story to tell on the matter. Similarly, be ready to think a few steps ahead by developing your "follow-up question muscle". This is important because you should not always settle for the first answer you receive from the interviewee. Instead, dig deeper into their answer to uncover richer insights. A good framework to adopt here is the "Five Whys".

Conclude the discussion with a debrief

Towards the end of the interview, it’s always a good idea to conclude the entire process on a succinct and positive note. You can inform your participants of what to expect next, and you can open doors for them to ask questions to you as well.

Also, don’t forget to thank them for taking out the time for this interview . This is very important because it shows you appreciate and respect the time and effort they put into this conversation.

Questions to avoid asking

Below are a few things to take note of before asking exploratory questions:

Avoid asking binary and hypothetical questions which lead to shallow yes/no or irrelevant answers altogether. A question like this may be- would you like to use my app?

Don’t go down the memory lane until and unless it has got anything meaningful for you to extract as a UX researcher. Something like- “how was your childhood like” makes little sense if you are creating an app that helps you pay credit card bills on time!

Deviate from the script if you need to. There is no rule of thumb stipulating that you have to follow the script line by line. If there’s any experience, the participant wishes to share that’s not in your script, let them! Remember, the key here is to make them feel as comfortable as they wish to feel.

Try not to force your preconceived notions, thoughts, and opinions on the participant. This risks making them change their answers and thus bias the interview. For example, saying something like- I don’t like the app because it has got bright colours and large fonts. A lot of my friends also think so. How about you? might put them under pressure to say the same things, even if they feel otherwise.

Next step: how to unlock insights from your user interviews

Now that you have the required guidelines, it should be easier for you to build your next discussion guide.

Nowadays, a growing number of user interviews are conducted over video. A pro tip to unlocking the knowledge in your user interview videos is to store them in a dedicated and secure repository of videos like EnVsion. All you need to do is record your next user interview, import it to EnVision, and get set to dissect it.

Add relevant notes, capture “wow” and “aha” moments, and share key insights with the entire team as short highlight reels so that they don’t have to watch hours upon hours of interview videos. Doing this will save everyone a lot of time, but most importantly, enable team members to quickly get to the essence of these interviews and make more informed decisions from those clips.

Those highlight reels are a powerful artifact that enables you to easily share the unfiltered voice of the user with your entire team so they can develop stronger empathy, alignment, and drive to solve the users’ problems.

To conclude, we highly recommend you prepare a discussion guide ahead of your user interviews. But make it a point not to follow the guide too rigidly, as it could make the conversation flow less naturally. Be prepared, but be open-minded and spontaneous too - these are essential qualities to conduct good UX research interviews.

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