Schottler Consulting Social and Market Research Knowledge Centre

How do I design a discussion guide for interviews and focus groups?


It may be tempting to throw a 'shopping list' of questions together for an

interview or focus group, however, this can often lead to research producing very poor outcomes.


As there is no rationale for these measures, it can produce a very disjointed and fragmented research design. It is also often unclear whether the 'shopping list' covers your research objectives.


It is much better to start with a clear measurement framework that shows the general measures that you want to explore in an interview or focus group.

This framework also provides a starting point for helping you structure your discussion guide for interviews or focus groups.


For instance, the measurement framework may cluster together your topics of interest such as:

  • Public understanding of the harms of smoking

  • Past experience with smoking

  • Recall of advertising relating to smoking harm

  • Intentions to continue smoking or give up smoking

First start by listing the themes in your framework such as these above. Also make sure you have covered both the influencing variables and outcome variables that you are interested in.

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Tips for success


The following tips can also be helpful when designing a discussion guide:

  • Describe that the feedback is strictly confidential and that no individuals will be identified

  • Start by describing the purpose of the study to your respondents - if large scale data collection is required, it is good to write this down, so all interviewers describe the project in the same way

  • Have an early question asking the interview subject to describe their background. A more specific question may also be appropriate if certain demographic or other details are important in the study (e.g., can you describe your level of involvement with XX over the past 12 months)

  • Consider including one or more questions that may warm people up to a research topic. This may either help them start thinking in more depth about the topic or alternatively, may encourage them to feel more comfortable talking about the topic

  • Where possible, use open end questions. These are better for encouraging discussion. Avoid questions that just elicit a yes or no response

  • Leave more sensitive questions to the end of the interview. This allows you to develop rapport with your interviewee and may lead them to feel more comfortable about answering a sensitive question


  • In focus groups, it is useful to write down a few ground rules and if you tend to forget these, it can be helpful to place these in the discussion guide for reference.

    We find that the most useful ground rules are to ask participants to:

    (A) Listen to the questions asked and try to answer them - We also add that there are many topics that can be discussed, but it is important that we focus on the facilitator's questions, as these are integral to the study

    (B) Try to not interrupt other participants while speaking and ensure that only one person is speaking at a time

    (C) Stay true to your own views and feel confident to express your own opinion, as we don't want people just 'agreeing' with each other

  • Place UNPROMPTED questions before PROMPTED questions -Unprompted questions involve asking an open end question before any clues or prompts are provided.

    For instance: Can you recall any advertising campaigns on smoking during the past 12 months?

  • After each prompted question, it may then be useful to include a number of prompted questions.

    For instance: Have you heard or seen advertising for Drink Driving Campaign A over the past 12 months?

  • Include questions that clearly cover your research objectives - These are good to continually cross-check against, as you prepare the discussion guide. You need to continually ask - Am I answering the research objectives with the questions I have prepared?

  • If you're having trouble thinking of questions, a brain storming session is often helpful. It can be useful to write everything down at first and then look for themes across your questions and then start the discussion guide


  • Start with big picture topics first before heading into more detailed topics - also make sure you don't jump from big picture to detail to big picture topics in a haphazard way - UNLESS there is a clear rationale for this


  • Use activities - either individually or on a group basis - to encourage people to form and express views and perceptions. This can also be useful if participants find it difficult to express their view on the research topic.

    Indeed, it's easier to give an opinion on something if you can SEE it.

    Examples may include:

    (A) Viewing pictures or advertising videos
    (B) Having examples of campaign materials for review
    (C) Getting people to answer questions in a short pre-focus group survey
    (D) Asking people to sort objects into groups
    (E) Getting small groups of 2-3pp to summarise suggested improvements

  • Include at the end of the research information on HOW the research will be used and remind participants of the confidentiality provisions

  • All focus group participants should also sign an informed consent statement that they are happy for their views to be used for the purpose of the research and consent to any videos being shown to clients.

    This is always important to do at the time of recruiting the participant and AGAIN in a written format before a group or interview commences.

  • If you have a set of 6-8 major topics for the research in your discussion guide, it's likely to be about the right amount for a 1.5hr focus group discussion or 45min to 1hr interview.

When taking notes during interviews, our team also like to set up notes in Excel with the major research questions in each field (column).


This then allows interviewee or focus group notes to be placed 'down the column' and allows rapid identification and summarisation of both verbatims and overall research themes.

So you may like to try this for your next research study, as it definitely saves a lot of time and helps researchers see insights!