Remote research can make building rapport with participants trickier than in person. This means it’s even more important to dedicate time at the start of the session to make sure the participant feels comfortable and that you’re able to connect with them on a genuine level. Good moderating is important for all kinds of interview-based studies, but especially for generative, foundational work. It’s necessary for getting to a core understanding of a user’s mental models, especially of concepts we typically think of as basic or everyday. Good research can often point out surprising details that go against our basic assumptions of how others see the world. Good moderation is a great way to unlock these insights.
A bit about me:
I got my start in research at a non-profit that delves deep into public opinion on social issues that are sometimes quite sensitive in nature, like poverty, housing, the economy, and healthcare. I interviewed dozens of members of the public about their personal thoughts and opinions on these issues during in-depth, 2-hour 1:1 interviews. I did this for 2 years, and through that time, I learned a lot about the importance of good moderating. While the work I do now doesn’t necessarily involve getting quite as deep or personal, I’m still in the business of asking questions and getting honest, realistic answers. These are some principles I’ve learned over the course of my career that have helped me be a more effective moderator.
#1. Lead with empathy
One of the most critical qualities of a good researcher is empathy. Our job is to understand the user’s perspective, put ourselves in their shoes, and try to anticipate their needs. Empathy also allows us to create a comfortable environment for users, which can lead to more valuable feedback. Get your participants to be open and honest by making them feel safe, comfortable, and heard. Show them that you’re human too and that you don’t expect them to know everything. It’s one thing to just say that, it’s another to truly create an environment where a participant feels comfortable being open and honest.
#2. Use silence to get participants talking
Sometimes, we get a very active, talkative participant – which is great! Other times, people need a bit more time to open up or need a bit more probing to really get to what they’re thinking. This is when your super-powered moderation skills come in.
A particularly useful tool in this situation can be using silence to your advantage. While it can be counterintuitive and even uncomfortable to hold silence, giving your participant a moment to think and reflect can get them to go deeper than they otherwise would. Trust that they want to fill the silence as much as you do, and let them take the lead.
#3. Be a good listener
Part of being a good UX researcher is being curious. When we’re in a research session, there is no better opportunity to lean into that curiosity, to listen closely, and to ask probing questions to get at the heart of what users are thinking and experiencing.
Be an active listener without overly validating what the participant has said. It’s important to give participants some sort of response when they’re talking, mostly to make them comfortable and to show them that you’re listening. At the same time, you don’t want to overly emphasize that something they’ve said is “good,” “great,” or “perfect” because that could lead the participant to think that there’s something specific we’re looking to get from them, which could impact the truth of what they’re telling us.
Similarly, paraphrasing can be a really great tool for making sure we understand our participants but be mindful of not overusing it and be mindful of not putting words in participants' mouths. Sometimes, if a participant says something that isn’t immediately clear to you, it’s better to ask them to elaborate further instead of telling them what you think they said.
#4. Remember, participants want to be liked
As researchers, we sometimes put participants in sensitive situations. We may be asking them to complete tasks with a prototype they’ve never seen before, or we may be asking them questions that intersect with a sensitive topic like health or class. In these situations, participants can feel pressured to respond and behave in a certain way that they think is “correct,” as opposed to what they actually think or what they would actually do. This is commonly referred to as “social desirability,” meaning that we all want to be seen positively, and we always want to say the “right” answer, even when we’ve been told there isn’t one.
One way to avoid this problem is to remove the researcher entirely, whether through an unmoderated usability session or a diary study. However, some studies demand moderated interviews to get the deepest understanding of participants' habits, mental models, and pain points.
In these instances, really emphasizing that results are anonymous and confidential during the introduction can help mitigate social desirability. This could even mean explaining the process that preserves their anonymity, like that they will only be referred to as P1, P2, etc., their name will be removed from the data, and the video footage will only be used as a reference for note-taking. More information about overcoming social desirability bias can be found here.
#5. Shadow other researchers
Something I’ve found to be extremely useful throughout my career is the opportunity to observe other researchers moderate different kinds of sessions. I’ve realized that everyone has their own style, their own tricks that they use to keep the conversation flowing and to make the participant feel at ease. If you see someone do something particularly effective, you can take that learning and incorporate it into your own moderation practice.