Farewell discussion guide, hello conversation framework


Over the last few years, we’ve seen many qualitative practitioners and clients stand up and claim that the focus group is dead. That conducting research in ‘laboratory environments’ leads to research affect and respondents telling you what they think they do, rather than what they actually do (or, worst case, telling you what they think you want to hear).
But is it really the methodology that’s to blame? Don’t get us wrong, we agree with the industry that we need to think carefully regarding the role and value of a group discussion before bowling in there and asking six strangers to share their innermost feelings and fears.

Could the issue be that we may not actually be listening properly to what consumers have to say? We need to stop asking questions and start listening to the stories our consumers have to tell of themselves, others and the world they live in. We also need to observe and feel the way they share their narrative – to understand the context and unconscious drivers to behaviour, choice and opinion. Then we need to use our unique skills as qualitative practitioners to steer the conversation in response to the information being shared – naturally.

So the challenge is not with methodology, but with one of the practitioner’s most established tools – the discussion guide.

A highly distracting half a dozen pages filled with instructions, questions, probes and prompts – a tool that often keeps qualitative practitioners twitching nervously in the hope that clients sitting in the back room aren’t ticking off and marking in what order questions are covered.

The process of creating the guide doesn’t help – with each email and call adding more content and further debating the use of one word over another. It often results in something closer to a semi-structured questionnaire than free-flowing exploration of human experience and behaviour.

What we should really be focussing on is ensuring that the basics are covered and that it should actually be the consumer that leads the conversation, not the research itself. So it’s about listening to not only the spoken word, but the pace and tone used, also watching for the all-important body language that enables the unconscious to indicate what is really going on behind the stories and responses shared.

Ultimately it’s about making respondents feel valued as reassuring cues are used, at the right time, to confirm they are being heard and understood, demonstrating that the connection and rapport is truly real – this is not something that is easily obtained.

We’ve learned through online qualitative methodologies that it is OK to develop a short framework for research discussions – that we don’t need the volume of probes and prompts that have become ‘the norm’ over the years. From this, we have seen that more powerful insights emerge when we can sit back and listen, encourage the narrative to come from the respondent, rather than through the barrage of questions too many of us throw at our respondents.

So, at Engage Research, we have adopted the approach of designing conversation frameworks. These short, snappy documents are used as reference points and true ‘guides’ for conversations with consumers, no matter the methodology. Listening is at the heart of this; we stop asking questions and are guided by the stories, tones and emotions played out through the conversations and exercises we invite participants to share.

We have been encouraging clients to be braver and use these frameworks, resulting in new discoveries and exciting, richer insights.

Author: Hazel Haskayne (

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