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Is it time to tear up the discussion guide?

"How do I know what I think until I hear what I say" Is it time to tear up the discussion guide?

The purpose of this paper is to generate a debate about the future of Qualitative Research by focussing on the meaning and symbolic role of the Discussion Guide. The starting point was a personal point of view that the Discussion Guide, in its current format and usage, has become an obstacle to appreciating Qualitative Research because it is inappropriate in context and inaccurate in application.

It is inappropriate in context because it misses out on the contribution of the respondent and too easily suggests a picture of a respondent as a passive provider of objective information. It presupposes a consumer encounter that is rational and a moderator role as a question setter; in reality the encounter is more emotive and the role is enabling. We have all been surprised by what we hear ourselves saying and commentators turn to Neuroscience to back a belief that the decisions we make are 95% unconscious and emotional. The argument is that language precedes cognition; we grasp our feelings only as we blurt them out, hold them back or distort them, through phrases, body language and our choice of imagery and metaphor (1).

This spontaneity in conversation and communication characterises qualitative research and our methodologies and techniques are honed to enable respondents to reveal hidden levels of awareness. To recognise this is to recognise that qualitative enquiry involves divesting the researcher of authority and passing it over to the respondents, so that it feels to them that it is their group. In the richest of ‘Focus Groups’, participants journey from self —conscious remarks through spontaneity to self-discovery. In this process, a new context for the issues being explored arises: the consumer context. This context can be guessed at from previous research, but it always has unique aspects in every group. It differs in imagination and vocabulary from the marketing context that has framed the area of enquiry from the outset. New dimensions arise and new ways of looking emerge.

In terms of ‘inaccuracy’, if you have either run or observed a ‘Focus Group’, in which the style of interviewing leaves structure behind and emphasizes open-ended enquiry, you can not fail to observe that the Discussion Guide has only a loose relationship to what actually happens, both in the style and the sequencing of the questions. This is because, after the moderator opens up an area of enquiry, subsequent ‘questions’ arise from the observations made by respondents and it is this ‘letting go’ that engenders a high level of interaction and a richness of response. Indeed, when you listen to a playback, you will be struck by the fact that in the majority of times that the moderator interjects into the conversation, they do so not with recognisable questions but with conversational, iterative audible prompts and grunts, signalling involvement and appropriate approval; Hmm - Hmm, Aha, Yeah, Gosh, Really, No, I Get’cha, Well I never, You don’t mean, Wow, Go on, Tell me more, Are you serious, Would you believe it, Do you hear that, It just goes to show !

My point is that there is a wide disparity between the theoretical discussion guide and the reality of the research experience. The discussion guide covers only a small part of qualitative elicitation and becomes misrepresentative and inaccurate once the research commences. This alarms me, I fear that it has become a formulaic part of the research process and too little debate has occurred.

This goes beyond irritation to a more significant concern for the future health of qualitative research itself. The discussion guide has become a symbol of approaching qualitative research problems with a restricted and overly rational mindset. This modest document has become a symbol of our failure to engage our client (the marketing department) into a qualitative mindset. This is at a time when marketing is increasingly looking for fresh and innovative ways to ‘get an edge’ on creating the future. At a time when the need is for a marketing style that is more innovative and creative, Qualitative research, if it is to remain relevant, should be a beacon to help new ways of thinking, rather than a mirror to convention.

In order to further a debate and to gauge a feel for the degree to which my concerns are shared in the industry, for this paper, I researched the views of a range of practitioners.

Methodology: Self Scripts

The research was conducted by collecting Self Scripts, an approach adapted from George Kelly’s technique of Self Characterisations (2). Self Scripts involve no questions save for the title of the area for consideration, in this case ‘Discussion Guides’. It is an entirely open research question and there are no additional prompts or parameters as to the content or issues to be considered

Following this methodology, contributors were asked to write about their views on Discussion Guides, but to do so by writing in the third person and to project their account “from the standpoint of somebody who knows them really well and has insight into their thoughts and feelings”. They were asked to start with a ‘blank page’ and to let their writing flow freely, capturing thoughts in a spontaneous way. Using this ‘stream of consciousness’ approach to writing, explicitly, they are instructed not to prepare what they to write. They may write as much or as little as they wish.

Kelly’s belief was that, by writing in the third person, contributors free themselves from self-consciousness and self-censorship. Stepping outside of the everyday taken for granted realities and reflecting on their behaviour and feelings serves to reveal embedded thoughts and emotions.

A total of 7 Self-Scripts was collected and analysed. Contributors were not a representative sample of the international community of commercial Qualitative Researchers, but care was taken to ensure a diverse range of sources. Contributors covered both genders and a range of career experience in terms of length and geographic area; careers spanned from 2 years to 30+ years, based across the UK, Europe, USA, the Far East and Australia.

Introduction to the Findings

The most fundamental distinction to emerge from the Self Scripts is that between writing a Discussion Guide and using it, paradoxically they are written with the intent of not using them as an active part of moderating the group.

The Self Scripts reveal that researchers have two contrasting perceptions and usages for the discussion guide; a self - focussed usage and a client usage. In turn these correspond to different and competing models of qualitative practice.

In the first of these roles the Discussion Guide is highly valued and considered essential, in the second role it is more problematic and feelings that are essentially conflicting, are always expressed.

The Discussion Guide for the researcher

Writing the Discussion Guide is characterised as the way in which the researcher becomes immersed in the project. Its principal value is as the means by which the researcher engages in the project, at the outset, in a focused way.

An analogy is drawn with the way in which an actor prepares for a role, not only by learning his lines, but also by aligning his thinking and feeling with the character he is about to portray. Just as the actor does not take his script on to the stage, neither do the researchers feel a need to take their guides into the group. Similarly to the way in which the actor uses his stagecraft and professional experience to enable him to interpret the role, researchers see themselves as drawing on craft skills and professional experience to undertake the project.

Writing the Discussion Guide then facilitates the process of alignment prior to the project and there are three areas of benefit from writing discussion guides that are identified;

  • Memorising or consolidating the ‘content’ of the research objectives and client issues
  • Selecting a personal approach to techniques or question styles to optimise the richness and veracity of response.
  • Projecting the researcher into the experience of running the group

These three areas of benefit tend to occur simultaneously in the act of writing a Discussion Guide and are not discrete or sequential. Only the first area is purely about content and it is clear that for Qualitative Researchers, there is no distinction between content and process, seamlessly they combine the thoughts about what they need to find out, with how they will set about doing it.

The Self Script responses are described and analysed in relation to these three areas and this leads to a discussion about the model for qualitative research that these observations uphold before considering the second major theme, the Discussion Guide for the Client.

Consolidating the Briefing / Memorising the Content

Familiarising themselves with the output requirements from the research is always an essential stage of preparation and it is an active and enjoyable process. It is the opportunity to consolidate the verbal briefing and to re-state in your own words the content to be covered. It is a private and thoughtful exercise;

He likes the opportunity to sit and think about the issues contained in the objectives”

"She also finds that as she types out a discussion guide, the objectives that she needs to cover in the group stick in her head better. So all in all a good memory exercise"

This is more than just a literal memory exercise though because thoughts about the sequence of enquiry and the clustering of themes and sub themes are drawn up as starting hypotheses about how responses can be gathered to optimise both range and depth of exploration. An order of enquiry, together with a narrative for how the group will unfold is constructed;

He knows that he couldn’t memorise a long list of questions, and to try would probably bore him rigid.

A personal approach to questions and techniques

The ‘moderator’ is the instrument of qualitative enquiry and it is a reflexive process (3). The success of the session is enhanced when the ‘moderator’ establishes rapport with the respondents and creates a research environment that is enabling and non - judgemental. An implicit understanding of this informs the way in which the self -scripts are written, references are made to the uniqueness of the guide and a tonality is introduced that evades the definite and introduces variance. Two distinct characteristics emerge, one is a claim to a personal and unique ownership of the research space and the other is reluctance for the guide to be seen as prescriptive and immutable;

She knows, also, that guides are really personal. It’s really hard to follow a guide that anyone else has written — everyone has their own style

Guides work best for the researcher to take time before the project to think, ‘how am I going to tackle this

This is the chance to have a proper think about how the groups should be run.

The various enquiry areas seem naturally to coalesce into ‘clumps’ on the page in a way that vaguely recognises that some of these territories will need to be covered before some others

The Discussion Guide is not seen as a list of questions and answers and there is even uneasiness about it being regarded literally as a statement of intent. The moderator will invariably do further work on this document as they think and re-think about the order and sequence of elicitation and the use of techniques and the introduction of stimulus. It becomes a series of permutation that can put together in a variety of ways depending on the dynamics of the group or the stage of the enquiry.

Projecting into the experience of running the group

The third area of benefit associated with writing the Discussion Guide is that of creating the opportunity to visualise or project how the dynamics of the group and the task of enquiry will unfold. At a specific level this can be just about approximately matching the various tasks to the discussion time available. Much more significantly, it is a mental rehearsal to attune to the unforeseen context that the respondents will bring.

Qualitative Researchers are aware that the content of the discussion guide is influenced principally by the Client’s perspective and that this is only one side of the research equation. At this point they can only hypothesize or guess at the consumers’ contribution. This brings an element of uncertainty to the guide; at worst, perhaps, it is a forlorn exercise because it is trying to pre-empt what is essentially unpredictable.

The imagery of visualisation and the metaphor of an improvised performance capture the fact that it is a spontaneous event that is being prepared for and that there will be a requirement to ‘think on your feet’ and react according to whatever circumstances throw up.

She will visualize the drama and the possibilities within that drama, and anticipate the characters and how they may or may not interact — sort of like improvisational comedy probe more here, keep it open and broad here.

She’ll kind of visualise how the groups will go whilst she is writing the guide — to get a good sense of the flow and to think about what techniques she might need to use in order to keep the group dynamic right.

He draws on things he has done in other projects and things other people have mentioned. He thinks of these things as ‘gambits’ to unearth a little more of the respondent’s true feelings about the subject.

Alongside the metaphor of a drama or event about to be enacted, the other metaphor that was referenced was that of a journey of adventure and discovery about to be embarked upon. Significant here is the belief that, at best, the path to follow can be signposted at the different junctures in the session (by the clustering of areas of interest to the client, the stimulus materials to be introduced, the techniques for projective games to be deployed etc) but along the way the territory to be traversed holds great areas of mystery and the opportunity for unanticipated forays. There is a strong belief that these will bring fresh and important learning.

You kind of feel your way along the dark path and take interesting detours. You have to be aware of other possible detours of which you will have no inkling about before hand.

The group feels like an organic journey of discovery and yet at the end of two hours every topic in the ‘discussion guide’ has been covered’

The groups seem almost always to evolve in their own way, and he always enjoys the way areas unfold unexpectedly. Such freedom to wander where he had not dreamt is delicious, and often fertile

The way of making this happen is as important, if not more so to the researcher, than the content he has painstakingly memorised from the client brief. Moderating a group is about creating the empathy that will ensure that openness and fluidity occurs.

Written and not Used: Short - handing the Guide

Whilst writing Discussion Guides is regarded as an essential part of preparing for the group, when it comes to running the group the priority switches to the ability to create a free flowing discussion in the sessions, a feeling of a natural and spontaneous enquiry. The painstaking and detailed account of the project issues and client objectives is too long and complex to be used without disrupting the ‘flow’ of conversation.

She hardly ever looks at the guide in the group — it’s far too verbose and difficult to follow — she’d rather write down some good starter questions to get herself going or a plan of the different s

 

Geoff Bayley
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2008