User interviews are a valuable source of insights for product development, but they can also present some difficulties for the moderator.
In my experience as UX Researcher in an international UX Research agency, I got the opportunity to do research with participants based in India and the United Kingdom. I noticed there are some moderation techniques that are often helpful in handling tricky situations.
In this article, I want to share some moderation techniques (or patterns) that can be used when things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Sometimes the participant is nervous, distracted, or even uncooperative. How do you handle these challenges and still get the feedback you need?
One helpful resource that I found is a book called The Moderator’s Survival Guide by Donna Tedesco and Fiona Tranquada. The book covers many different situations that you may encounter as a moderator, and provides practical advice on what to do and say in each case.
One of the concepts that the book introduces is moderation patterns. These are specific steps that you can take to change the course of a session and adapt to the situation. The book identifies nine moderation patterns that you can use in various combinations depending on the method, the goal, and the participant’s comfort level. Here they are:
This pattern involves acknowledging that something went wrong or is not working as expected, and apologizing for any inconvenience or discomfort caused to the participant. This shows respect and empathy, and helps to maintain rapport and trust.
Clarify the task/question
This pattern involves rephrasing or repeating the task or question that you want the participant to do or answer, and checking for understanding. This helps to avoid confusion and frustration, and ensures that you get the information you need.
Redirect the participant
This pattern involves steering the participant back to the topic or task at hand, and politely interrupting any tangents or irrelevant details. This helps to keep the session focused and on track, and avoids wasting time and resources.
Reassure the participant
This pattern involves providing positive feedback or encouragement to the participant, and reminding them that there are no right or wrong answers or actions. This helps to boost the participant’s confidence and motivation, and reduces anxiety and self-blame.
This pattern involves showing interest and curiosity in what the participant is saying or doing, and asking open-ended questions or follow-ups. This helps to elicit more details and insights from the participant, and makes them feel valued and appreciated.
Disengage from the participant
This pattern involves minimizing your interaction with the participant, and letting them do or say what they want without interruption or guidance. This helps to observe their natural behaviour and reactions, and avoids influencing or biasing them.
Take a break
This pattern involves pausing the session for a short period of time, and allowing the participant to relax or attend to other needs. This helps to restore energy and attention levels, and prevents fatigue and boredom.
Shift the focus
This pattern involves changing the topic or task of the session, and moving on to something else that is more relevant or interesting for the participant. This helps to avoid dwelling on negative or difficult issues, and sparks new ideas or perspectives.
End the session early
This pattern involves terminating the session before it is scheduled to finish, and thanking the participant for their time and feedback. This helps to avoid further damage or harm to yourself, the participant, or your organisation, and preserves your professional reputation.
These moderation patterns are not mutually exclusive or sequential; you can use them in any order or combination that suits your situation.
An Example of how to use moderation patterns in practice
Here’s an example of how you can use moderation patterns in practice:
Let’s say you’re conducting a user interview with a participant who is feeling anxious or overwhelmed by the questions or tasks you’re asking them to do. You notice that they are fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, and giving short or vague answers. What do you do?
First, you can use the moderation pattern of reassuring the participant. You can say something like “Thank you for your time and effort so far. I appreciate your honesty and insights. Please know that there are no right or wrong answers or actions in this session. We’re just trying to learn more about how we can improve our product/service for people like you.”
Then, you can use the pattern of clarifying the task/question. You can say something like “I understand that some of these questions or tasks may be confusing or difficult. Can you tell me which ones are giving you trouble? Maybe I can rephrase them or provide more context.”
Then, the pattern of building engagement can be used. You can say something like “That’s a great point you made about [the topic]. Can you tell me more about that? How does it relate to your experience with our product/service?”
If needed, you can use the moderation pattern of taking a break. You can say something like “I sense that you may need a short break to collect your thoughts or relax. Would you like to take a few minutes to stretch your legs or get some water? We can resume the session when you’re ready.”
That was just an example of how moderation patterns can be used in practice. The key is to be flexible, empathetic, and respectful of the participant’s needs and preferences. These patterns can be used to create a safe and productive environment for both yourself and the participant.
If you have any stories of your own about tricky or sticky situations during user interviews, I’d love to hear them too! Thanks for reading!