Hello, curious minds! I'm Michele Ronsen from Curiosity Tank, and today we're diving deep into the world of user research discussion guides. A well-crafted discussion guide can empower your primary research sessions, so you can uncover valuable findings and insights efficiently.

A discussion guide is your roadmap for a productive research journey. It encompasses every aspect of your session, ensuring a seamless flow of transitions and activities. Think of it as a comprehensive plan for your qualitative or quantitative research sessions. But a research guide isn’t just about the questions you’ll ask. It encompasses every facet of the session, ensuring a seamless flow of transitions and activities. 

In this article, I explain what discussion guides are, when to use them, and how to create well-structured guides for your user research sessions.

Why do we use discussion guides in user research?

Discussion guides are indispensable for several reasons:

  1. Alignment with objectives: They direct conversations, ensuring alignment with research objectives and specific evidence capture.

  2. Consistency across sessions: A well-structured guide ensures consistent questioning, allowing for pattern recognition and reliable data.

  3. Flexibility for exploration: While guiding, it's not a rigid script. Experienced moderators can and should explore new and pertinent topics that participants introduce. 

UX discussion guide

When to create a discussion guide 

Discussion guides are versatile and should be used throughout the product development process. Guides should be drafted after your research plan and recruiting criteria are solidified and approved by stakeholders. Stakeholders should provide feedback on and approve the guide as well. 

I even author guides for my unmoderated sessions. They help me envision the unmoderated experience, it’s sequencing, and ensure alignment with the study’s goals.

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How to create a discussion guide: Step-by-step

  1. Prioritize key questions: Adapt questions from your research plan and prioritize them based on importance.

  2. Allocate time: Determine the time available for each session and add timestamps for different sections of questions.

  3. Organize question sequencing: Create a natural flow for your questions. Explore broader topics before diving into specifics.

  4. Clarify verbiage: Ensure questions are free from bias, jargon, double-barreled phrasing, and unnecessary words. 

  5. Align with research goals: Make sure each question directly aligns with your research objectives and chart them all out. 

  6. Pilot your guide: Test your guide and any associated activities or stimuli before the first session to ensure everything runs smoothly.

UX discussion guide

I’d suggest adding a section at the end of your discussion guide that you can use to cross-reference your research goals/objectives with each question posed in the guide. Aligning the information in this way helps to ensure that:

  1. Each goal/objective has questions in the guide that support it.

  2. Each goal/objective has the right amount of questions in the guide in proportion to the weight of each goal/objective (not all goals/objectives are equal!).

  3. Extraneous, missing, and/or redundant questions can be evaluated and addressed before research sessions begin.

UX discussion guide

Here's a screenshot of the chart from the Ask Like A Pro discussion guide template. I hope you find this tactic useful!

What to include in a discussion guide


A warm and engaging introduction sets the stage for what will happen in the session. It's about gaining permission, creating a comfortable environment, and right-sizing expectations. 

It’s also a time for you to confirm your must-haves! Confirming essential recruiting criteria helps to mitigate participant fraud. Ask your core screener questions as open questions, then cross-reference their verbal responses to their screener responses. If they don’t match, strongly consider canceling the session.  

Also confirm the time allotted for the session. If your participants aren’t available for the full session length, ascertain whether to cover the most important questions, reschedule, or cancel.

Confirm participants are joining from the right type of device and browser (if important) at the beginning of the session. If they need to switch their device, strongly consider rescheduling or canceling.

Ensure that any legal consents or permissions are addressed in the intro as well. These protect both you and your participants.

I have this verbiage built into all of my discussion guides and I say it while recording: “Thank you. I confirm the recording has started and I have your permission to record.” This serves as a reminder to check I am indeed recording (again)!

Tips for crafting and sequencing effective questions

  • Ask relevant questions aligned with your research goals.

  • Include actionable questions and specific probes to dig deeper into each topic.

  • Sequence questions so the conversation will naturally flow. 

I like to categorize the questions AND label the "must have," "nice to have," and probing questions clearly. This visually, and literally, reminds me of the priorities, ensures focus on the most critical aspects, and makes a huge difference when short on time.

  • Use open-ended questions for exploration and closed-ended for confirmation. Here are examples of open-ended participant questions:

    • How would you describe your ____ process?

    • What works well about X? What doesn't work well about it?

    • How do you decide if/when to _____?

    • Where were you when this happened? 

    • Please show me how you would initiate/do/go about that.

    • How would you describe this experience to someone who was unfamiliar?

    • Who are the people involved in making this decision?

    • When does X come into play?

    • Where would you go to learn more about _____?

    • What would you do at this point if I wasn't here?

Note, most of these are open questions, as opposed to closed questions that are likely to result in yes, no, or other one-word responses. Closed-ended questions typically begin with “is, were, was, can, do, and did”. While closed-ended questions have their place in a discussion guide, the majority should be open-ended.

They entice richer, more thoughtful responses with important context. Also note the brevity and directness above. These are short, use simple and natural language, and do not contain any unnecessary words.

Some other things to bear in mind:

  • Eliminate leading questions with bias.

  • Keep language simple and clear, avoiding jargon.

  • Focus on one question at a time and pause after each.

  • Aim to understand participants without judgment.

  • Create a "wrap-up" to summarize the session. Repeat back what you “think” you heard about the most important takeaways and then ask for confirmation or clarification. This often creates a terrific sound bite, too.

  • Include cues for observers/notetakers to ask additional questions or seek clarification during the session.

  • Pilot the entire guide and everything associated with your session.  

I typically have a dedicated Slack channel set up where my observers/note takers and I can communicate in real time. This allows me speedy access to ask them questions, provide feedback, and vice versa. At the end of the session, I ask if they have any additional questions as well. 

Session materials

Provide links to any materials, prototypes, or other resources to share with participants during the session, and be sure to add any required login credentials.

Remember, when you’re testing more than one concept, switch the order in which you are showing the concepts to mitigate bias. For example, specify in the guide who will see concept A first, versus who sees concept B first.

Outline any pre-session work, artifacts to be collected, and screenshots to capture. Having this detail in your guide significantly reduces the chances of forgetting to refer to it or capture it.

When conducting evaluative research, insert images of your stimuli in each section of your guide to make sure the participant is in the right location when you’re asking specific questions. 

Time management

Timestamps help keep your sessions on track and ensure you cover all necessary areas.

I add timestamps at the beginning of each section. For example, the intro may be listed as “:05” (minutes), and the “establish background context” activity may be listed as “:15 (minutes).   

Include at least three to four time markers in your guide. I often include six or seven to ensure I’m on schedule. 

How to navigate off-topic conversations

During live sessions, it's common for participants to veer off-topic. While these diversions can offer valuable input, managing them effectively is essential to prevent the session from going sideways. 

UX discussion guide

Here's a quick guide to handling these situations with finesse:

  • Listen actively: When participants stray, give it a moment to see if they circle back to the current question. Oftentimes, they'll self-correct.

  • Acknowledge and redirect: If they don’t self-correct, politely express appreciation for their input, then gently guide the conversation back. You can say something like, "That's intriguing. Please help me understand how this relates to X?” 

  • Note and follow-up: Inform them that you'll make a quick note of the [off-topic point] for potential discussion at the end of the session if time allows. This demonstrates that their input was heard and is valued.

When the off-topic conversations aren’t related to my study goals (e.g. they’re about a different aspect of the product we’re not currently exploring), I let the participant know I’d like to circle back to it at the end if there’s time. I then share their feedback with the right team/person and ask the participant if they’re open to chatting about it in the future. UX is a team sport!

  • Respect curiosity: While it's crucial to stay on track, allow brief detours if they appear meaningful and relevant.

  • Maintain control: As the moderator, your role is to steer the conversation. If necessary, gently guide participants back to the planned questions, prioritizing the session's objectives.

  • Use probing questions: If off-topic discussions reveal essential issues, consider using probing questions to delve deeper while managing your time efficiently.

By following this concise guide to effectively managing off-topic conversations, you can harness valuable input, maintain the focus on your core objectives, and potentially help another team in the process. 

Off-topic conversations shouldn’t overshadow your research objectives. Remember, your discussion guide should act as a strong compass, yet allow flexibility for unexpected learnings. 


Discussion guides are essential tools for precise and insightful user research. Crafted thoughtfully, they empower you to unlock valuable insights, guide your research effectively, and drive meaningful changes. Happy researching!

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This article was authored by Michele Ronsen, Founder and CEO of Curiosity Tank. Michele is a user research executive, coach and educator. She teaches design and user research to people around the world. Her corporate trainings and workshops are inspired by working with Fortune 500s and start-ups for more than twenty years. Fuel Your Curiosity is her award winning, free, user-research newsletter. In 2020, LinkedIn honored Michele with a TopVoices award in the Technology category. She is the first and only researcher to receive this award. 

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