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The Art of Moderating User Research

(This post is based on the video, “The Art of Moderating,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

In a research session, a moderator’s goal is to acquire as much knowledge as possible from potential users of the product based on their experience (or even a lack of experience). This knowledge ultimately drives the design, whether it’s of a physical product, packaging, or even a product’s Instructions for Use.

But moderating user research sessions tends to be an overlooked art. A skilled moderator has the ability to ask the questions necessary to understand users’ decisions, needs, and expectations. At the same time, a moderator must be careful not to influence participants.

The Art of Moderating involves keeping one’s approach flexible and navigating nuances skillfully during user research sessions in order to acquire as much knowledge as possible from potential users of a product.

Laying the Foundation for Successful User Research

There are a lot of nuances involved in moderating effectively. These include recognizing which details are important, knowing when to take a step back, and sensing how to make your participant feel at ease.

The Art of Moderating involves keeping one’s approach flexible and navigating nuances skillfully during user research sessions in order to acquire as much knowledge as possible from potential users of a product.

You want participants to be comfortable and relaxed, and sometimes this can mean ensuring that you’ve properly set up the use environment expected for the product you are studying. Then, to get the session flowing, you might start with some broad, easy-to-answer questions.

As you observe, be careful not to jump in too soon if users struggle with a product! Sometimes the best learnings can be had by giving the participant an opportunity to figure it out on their own, and to understand how they ultimately figured it out. This will help lead you to insights that may speak to both the pros and cons of the product and to mitigate these potential errors in the future.

High-level overview of some of the user research methods used during the design process

Let the Product Phase Determine Your Approach

Your approach to moderating user research will depend greatly on the research phase, research methodology, and type of product.

When determining the questions you’ll ask and how you’ll ask them, one of the first things you’ll need to do is establish where the product is in the design and development process.

Generative Research for Early-Stage Projects

In generative research, which typically happens early in the design process, you’re seeking insights to help you make key decisions. These decisions will ensure you remain in alignment with user needs and the key questions to be answered in the design process.

One example of a frequently used generative-research method is contextual inquiry, or the study of users in their natural environment.

During some types of contextual inquiry, you may even want to imagine yourself starring in a documentary on the Nature channel, observing animals in the wild! Keep conversation to a minimum and take a lot of notes.

How Contextual Inquiry Led to the Swiffer

You might be surprised how many of the products you use came from successful contextual inquiry. Swiffer is a great example.

After going into homes and observing people mopping their floors, that research team realized the problem was the process, and not so much the product. Instead of sending another new mop to market, their insights prompted a new type of cleaning product altogether.

You can see how asking the right questions — or not asking questions at all — is key. The Swiffer team didn’t ask participants what features they wanted in a new mop. Instead, they simply observed and let those observations speak for themselves.

Contextual inquiry led to Swiffer

Focus on Users’ Actions

In research, our focus should be on what people do, not necessarily what they say, because the former is typically more telling.

Be cautious not to ask too many questions, but try and balance that with making sure you ask the right questions. Silence can be golden, and there’s often no need to fill those “awkward silences.” These pauses provide space for participants to think, and to get into a cadence of providing feedback in a more productive way.

Evaluative Research for Late-Stage Products

More evaluative research methods, such as usability testing, typically happens a little later in the product design and development process.

You can use an opportunity such as formative usability testing to evaluate the current state of your physical product (including the labeling, instructions, and packaging) before the “design freeze” sets in. The key here is to learn what the user thinks about the design in such a way as to be impactful.

As a moderator, it’s important for you to understand the elements of the product that can still be influenced by research and to design your study in such a way to ensure the feedback is impactful. Your goal is to allow the conversation to flow toward those objectives, but without bias.

Moderating Medical Device User Research

Both generative and evaluative research are vital for mission-critical products like medical devices where safety, efficacy, and performance can be a matter of life or death.

When medical technology company, Baebies, sought Bresslergroup’s assistance bringing a complex screening procedure out of the lab and into daily use, we interviewed medical lab technicians and phlebotomists to learn the details of the procedure. Then, we shadowed neonatal nurse practitioners at hospitals of varying sizes, and we talked with department heads to understand existing systems.

We used those sessions to inform a series of models and mock-ups, which we tested with hospital staff in multiple rounds.

The result is FINDER, a high-quality screening device that can be used for neonatal care around the world. It has a friendly, gentle appearance with physical and virtual interfaces that make every step unmistakable. It’s now available in Europe, and it received a CE Mark in 2019.

the art of moderating user research

Perfecting the Art of Moderation

Like any art, moderating takes practice. Over time, and after experiencing many types of personalities, you can start to develop an instinct for it.

No matter what research phase you’re in, your goal should be to break down the barriers between you and your participant so they no longer see you as a moderator but as someone they can easily share their opinions with.

What you learn while moderating a research session will ultimately inform the design of a new product or a next generation of products.

Learn about more product design principles when you download our free Design Defined ebooks, v1 and 2!