Clinical practice guidelines are one of the foundations of efforts to improve health care. In 1999, we authored a paper about methods to develop guidelines. Since it was published, the methods of guideline development have progressed both in terms of methods and necessary procedures and the context for guideline development has changed with the emergence of guideline clearing houses and large scale guideline production organisations (such as the UK National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). It therefore seems timely to, in a series of three articles, update and extend our earlier paper. In this first paper we discuss: the target audience(s) for guidelines and their use of guidelines; identifying topics for guidelines; guideline group composition (including consumer involvement) and the processes by which guideline groups function and the important procedural issue of managing conflicts of interest in guideline development.