Reimagining Discussion Guides in Qualitative Research: A Path to Deeper Insights

In our previous blogs, we explored the roles of “interviewers” and “moderators” in qualitative research, shedding light on their subtle but profound distinctions. Building on that foundation, let’s delve into an intriguing aspect of qualitative research: discussion guides. Are they a blessing or a curse? Well, that’s a question we’ll navigate together.

Discussion guides are often seen as essential tools to steer interviews or focus group conversations. They aim to provide structure and ensure researchers cover all the necessary topics. In theory, they’re fantastic. In practice, they can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Here’s why.

Too often, discussion guides are treated as rigid scripts, akin to structured surveys, particularly in studies that require more of an “interviewer” approach, where predefined questions are asked to gather specific information or opinions. This rigidity can hinder the natural flow of conversation between moderators and participants, preventing us from capturing the nuanced responses that are the essence of qualitative research.

The Discussion Guide, Redefined

So, does this mean we should toss discussion guides out the window and rely on spontaneity? Not quite. Instead, let’s consider a subtle shift in how we perceive discussion guides. What if we viewed them as flexible tools that guide rather than dictate conversations? What if they were references that provided guardrails to prevent veering too far off course while allowing for organic discussions?

In more exploratory studies, discussion guides can take on a different form as “topic outlines,” something that conveys the fluid nature of the moderated conversation. This shift allows for a dynamic and adaptable approach, where the guide acts as a reference point rather than a strict script.

Imagine empowering moderators to utilize their active listening skills, intuition, and adaptability to create an environment where participants express themselves freely. This shift can enhance the authenticity and richness of qualitative research, keeping it true to its core purpose: to uncover meaningful insights.

Moreover, what if we shifted our focus from meticulously crafting discussion guides to truly understanding research objectives? Rather than obsessing over what we ask, let’s emphasize why we ask it. This shift could lead to a more personalized, adaptive, and fruitful approach to qualitative research, yielding:

1. Better Goal Alignment: A deep understanding of research objectives empowers moderators to adapt their questioning techniques, delve deeper into relevant areas, and have more targeted and insightful discussions.

2. Improved Participant Engagement: With a strong grasp of research objectives, moderators can connect better with participants, creating an environment conducive to open and honest dialogue.

3. Contextualized Analysis: Moderators who understand research objectives can effectively synthesize information, identify key patterns, themes, and insights that align with research goals, resulting in more valuable outcomes.

The question now becomes: how do we make this shift from focusing on the discussion guide to fully understanding research goals? It’s simpler than you might think, and it involves a three-step process:

1. Clearly Define Research Objectives: Start by establishing well-defined research objectives in collaboration with the client. This crucial first step ensures that both parties are aligned on the purpose and desired outcomes, providing added guidance for the moderator as they structure the research and facilitate more focused and meaningful discussions.

2. Create a Research Outline: Instead of providing a rigid, script-like, full-scale discussion guide, outline the main research components or themes to be covered during the discussions. This approach offers a loose structure that guides the moderator while allowing for flexibility, exploration, and unexpected insights as the conversation naturally evolves.

3. Pretest Interviews: Consider including three to four pretest interviews to give clients a better understanding of how the moderator will conduct the actual research. This can help manage expectations and create trust by demonstrating the moderator’s understanding of the research objectives, interviewing style, and ability to adapt on-the-fly.
By embracing this approach, you pave the way for more personalized, adaptive, and fruitful qualitative research, leading to a deeper understanding of the subject matter and more valuable outcomes.

Overcoming Trust Issues

There’s another reason clients can be reluctant to relinquish control of the discussions guide: trust issues. As experienced as a moderator may be in leading discussions, they don’t always have a deep understanding of the topic that’s being discussed — especially if that topic is highly technical, complex, or specialized. In these cases, clients may feel the need to dictate the tone and language of the discussion guide — down to the last word and punctuation mark.

This is completely understandable, especially in a new and untested relationship. By maintaining tight control over the discussion guide and using it more like a script, clients can compensate for a moderators’ lack of knowledge about the topic being discussed. But again, this can end up stifling the conversation and impeding quality insight.

Letting go of this control is an exercise in trust on the part of the client. Partnering with a moderator and research team that bring a high level of understanding, ideally gleaned from first-hand experience, of the topic can help clients feel more comfortable with releasing the reins. Pretesting interviews (step three above) can also be an effective tool in building that trust.

Let Moderators Moderate

Ultimately, as researchers we should strive for that balance between providing structure and allowing for natural conversation within the research process. By recognizing the discussion guide as a flexible tool rather than a strict must-follow script, we can leverage its benefits while preserving the value of organic qualitative research.

This approach gives moderators the ability to be more attentive and responsive to the dynamics of the discussion, enabling them to probe deeper into relevant areas and follow interesting tangents that emerge naturally during the conversation. In other words, to become better moderators. And that leads to better insights.