The following is an excerpt from an ebook I wrote with Rachel Price, User Research for Taxonomy Design. We wrote it as a companion piece to a presentation we gave at Taxonomy Bootcamp 2016, because we think there’s a lack of good information out there about generative qualitative research for taxonomy. In our book, we break it down into simple steps so you can do your own research.

If you’re following this process, you should have a pretty good idea of what you want to ask participants about already, since you’ll have thought about your goals and who the best people are to address them. We always collect these questions in a discussion guide and use that to drive the interview.

Using a discussion guide

A discussion guide is the set of questions you plan to ask a participant. We purposely don’t call it a ‘script’, because this kind of contextual inquiry works best when it feels like a conversation, and scripts don’t work very well when you’re trying to have a conversation. If you stick too closely to a script, the interview feels, well….scripted. This keeps the participant from speaking to you openly and naturally.

A discussion guide allows you to float between questions and themes, and follow the participant where they take you in conversation. Think of it as a set of milestones you are trying to reach while in an interview.

How to write one

Go back to your research objectives and determine, based on these objectives, what you need to ask your participants. Good prompts for a discussion guide will have just enough detail to provide you with safety net, but won’t dictate the entire conversation. We also like identifying what the user goal for each prompt should be (What should they be trying to do in response to your question?) and the test goal of asking that question (What’s the point of including it?). Making sure those goals are front-and-center in your mind will help you keep on track, even as you improvise.

For an hour-long interview, identify eight to ten prompts. Depending on how chatty the participant is, you may not get through all ten each time, and that’s fine. Focus on getting good information out of each one, not hitting every single question.