It’s your first time moderating a user research session? No worries! Moderating is sort of like having a conversation, except you have clearly defined goals and a script to follow. If you’re an introvert, it’s basically a really safe way to have a conversation.
Especially if it’s your first time moderating user research sessions, practising your script will make you more comfortable and confident, which will in turn help the person you’re talking to feel more comfortable. The most important bit of this is the opening introduction. I tend to script this whole thing, so I can launch into it without accidentally missing anything. Once you’ve worked through that, you’re likely to warm up a bit.
Set up fifteen minutes in advance. Close your door so you won’t be distracted. Dig out your headphones and make sure they’re connected and charged. Put your computer and phone in do not disturb mode. Quit any applications that are likely to distract you, or at least minimise windows. Set up your screen so you can see your script and the chat window at the same time. You may prefer to print your script, but have both available to you so you don’t lose your place.
Technology often can and will go wrong. Use the best headset you have available—the kind you see in stock photos of call centre operators is best, but headphones will do in a pinch. Make sure your internet speed is reliable. It’s also good to aim to keep your background as neutral as possible, so participants aren’t distracted by your toddlers in the background.
There are no wrong answers.
Remind your participant they can’t give a wrong answer. Remind them a lot. Remind them at the start of your session, and repeat it often. People tend to crave acceptance, and as a moderator, you have some level of authority.
This one can be a real challenge when, as product-builders, our instinct is often to immediately jump to brainstorming solutions when we discover a problem. This is actually counter-productive here. Research is about discovering problems, not about solving them. Solving them comes later.
What’s better is the dig further into the problem. When you discover a problem or pain point, ask the participant more questions—what part are they finding confusing?
If you’re doing usability testing, this will crop up a great deal. When someone is unsure of which button to press, they may ask you directly what to do. If you’ve built the interface, it can be really hard watching someone struggle, but this is one of the best ways of learning to improve. Instead of giving them the answer, ask more questions: “What do you think would happen if you press that button?” “How would you expect to do it?”
Consider your script a guideline.
An interview is a conversation, not a rigid back-and-forth process. Allow the conversation to flow naturally, and you’ll get more insights. You want the person you’re talking to to feel as though they’re having a conversation, not being quizzed.
That means sometimes reordering your questions based on what the participant has last said—if you want to ask about marketing and they mention marketing, take advantage of the transition, even if it’s not the next question on your list. Ask follow up questions to dig deeper into topics that are of interest, and follow conversation threads even if they aren’t necessarily listed explicitly in your script.
Keep an eye on the time.
It’s important to respect your time, your research partners’ time, and your participant’s time. Your job as moderator is to make sure your interview doesn’t run over time. It’s okay to cut an interview short if it’s not working, but you shouldn’t let an interview run long without having a really good reason for doing so. Your script will indicate the approximate time for each section, and you can use this as a gauge to see how you’re doing. If you have five minutes listed for icebreakers, but the first question took six minutes, it might make sense to skip ahead to the next section.
Avoid leading questions.
A leading question is a question which subtly prompts the respondent to answer in a particular way. Leading questions are generally undesirable as they result in false or slanted information.
Example: Do you have any problems with your boss?
This question prompts the person to question their employment relationship. In a subtle way, it raises the prospect that there are problems.
Better: Tell me about your relationship with your boss.
This question does not seek any judgment and there is less implication that there might be something wrong with the relationship.
The best way to avoid leading questions is to start with an awareness. It can be hard to avoid asking leading questions, but the first step is to recognise when you’re asking them. You can practise this in everyday conversations as well, where you may have the opportunity to reframe the question after you’ve asked it. In an interview, it’s best not to restate the question unless you can do so in a way that feels natural, but make a note that the question could have been phrased better, and discuss how to improve it in your debriefing session.
Avoid yes or no questions.
For a qualitative user research session, you want to ask open-ended questions—the kind where you ask a question, and someone can immediately respond with a single, one-word answer. (If you wanted that, you could just use a survey!) With an interview, we’re usually looking to go deeper and uncover more root motivations, emotions, and experiences. Compare:
“Do you ever use cheques to pay vendors?”
“Tell me about how you usually go about paying vendors.”
“Well, a lot of them now take credit card payments, so I tend to do that if they don’t charge card processing fees. But keeping costs low is really important, so if they charge a fee, I try to avoid it. Sometimes I’ll pay cash, but it’s less convenient and it’s harder to track. I also sometimes worry that when vendors ask for cash, they’re avoiding paying taxes…”
Not every participant will offer up a lot of detail for every question—it’s up to you to ask follow up questions to dig deeper.