For every kid who dreams of being in a Major League Baseball game, how many lay awake at night imagining themselves not at the plate but behind it, calling balls and strikes?
NONE? Maybe a few? Why imagine yourself as an umpire when you could fantasize about hitting the game-winning home run?
Some young men and women out there must dream of being umpires, but they’re probably few and far between. For some reason, people don’t aspire to a position of neutrality (except maybe those who want to be judges).
Moderators in user experience, however, find great purposefulness in their neutral roles. Most researchers, at some point, fall in love with research because they love fact-finding, understanding the root causes of a problem, and connecting people with solutions. The moderator – while remaining unbiased – has a critical role in helping to bring forth the best information, and this is crucial in the process of laying out a winning game strategy.
The Active Listener
A better word than “moderator” might be “active listener,” which may sound like a contradiction in terms. It is, after all, the extraction of thoughts from the subject that matters most in UX research.
They do, however, need to keep interview subjects in the right frame of mind and help them share their thoughts and insights. The active listener doesn’t try to bias the answers but can help bring forward ideas that reflect the subject’s actual beliefs and provide real insight that can impact product development.
For example, a good moderator often helps subjects feel comfortable by asking them to share a little about themselves. Some of what’s shared could be helpful as insight for the client, but often, it’s useful simply in helping the subject feel valued and respected. After all, if you feel like people care about your opinions but not about you, do you really want to participate?
Maintaining a Positive Interview Environment
Going back to our umpire analogy: Umpires are responsible before the game for making sure the foul lines are drawn correctly and for going over the ground rules with both teams’ managers. They are also responsible for rubbing up the baseballs with special mud (you think I’m making this up?) to take the shine off the ball when it leaves the pitcher’s hand.
UX research moderators need to perform their own pre-game checks to ensure the interview room is devoid of distractions and set up to keep subjects’ heads in the game.
Expert UX researchers want the interview subject focused on them and the questions they’re asking. They don’t want an interviewee’s eyes darting around the room at photos and knick-knacks or have them distracted by phone notifications or people talking outside in the hallway.
Interviews Don’t Always Follow Scripts
A friend of Usability Sciences worked for years as a journalist and shared how he disliked it when sources asked, “Can you send me the questions?”
This is because interviews don’t always follow scripts. You can go in with questions in mind, and there are some that absolutely must be asked. But a good interviewer knows how to follow the conversation where a subject naturally wants to take it. Some answers simply demand a follow-up question you weren’t expecting to ask, and you can’t just move on to your pre-scripted next question when that happens.
UX researchers have to be equally nimble.
There are the must-ask questions, but many times a subject’s answer will beg for further investigation. Learning to follow up on those gems and developing them into truly powerful nuggets of qualitative data is one of the best skills a UX research moderator can develop.
Remember, You’re Still Neutral
A few years ago, a presidential debate moderator decided to “fact-check” one of the candidates right in the middle of the debate. (For the purposes of avoiding partisanship, we’ll skip the names and faces.) I’m sure the moderator felt like this was all in the service of accuracy. Unfortunately, it came out the next day that the “fact-check” was factually wrong. In retrospect, it would have been better had the moderator just let the combatants have it out and pick up the pieces later.
A UX research moderator’s job is not to try to correct facts or ideas, and it certainly isn’t to answer the questions. It’s to set the stage for the subject to share insights freely. For that reason, even the moderator’s words must be carefully chosen. If moderators inject their own words or ideas into the conversation, they could unwittingly serve as leading the subject to a certain answer. It’s better to repeat back the subject’s own words as much as possible in order to keep the subject thinking independently.
By the same token, the best questions are open-ended ones that give subjects room to breathe with their answers. Even if the subject ends up taking that as the cue for a tangent, sometimes that’s what it takes for the fullness of their thinking to come out.
Back, one more time, to our baseball analogy. The most noticed umpires are usually not considered the good ones. The fans notice them when they impact the game by making mistakes. The best umpires, on the other hand, go largely unnoticed, but their role is critical in setting the stage for a good clean game in which the players are the stars.
It's much the same with UX research moderators. They do everything possible to help interview subjects express valuable sentiments and ideas – to create a comfortable, productive environment and to help them along the way when they’re having trouble.
The moderator is never the star of the show, but those in the field who understand its value will never fail to appreciate a moderator’s job well done.