What you quickly learn first time moderating

There are more than a few guidelines and best practices when it comes to user moderation. Then are some qualities that you learn the hard way, when you’re actually in front of the user.

Here are some of the things I discovered very quickly during my first two days of moderating. Although no amount of books can prepare you for the users that will walk through your door.

Language is everything

People are there for many different reasons. They might be there just for the money, or out of curiosity. Almost none of the participants knew exactly they were there for, or what they were ‘supposed’ to do. No matter how many times you tell them they’re not being tested, it is still a lab and it feels like one.

Wording tasks was something I had to adapt. More so depending on which devices you’re testing with users are quick to discard the device. At the end of the day it’s not their device and if you’re continually asking them questions they want to face you.

My language changed from ‘How would you do x and y?’ to ‘Could you show me how…?’.

A lot of the time people would just talk and tell you a story. “Well I would do it like this, in this way.” Instead always get the users to show you how they do the task. The iPad and iPhone almost seems to distract them from talking to you. The way the users put the phone down as you asked each question was consistent. No one wanted to touch the phone or use it.

In contrast to this, being very explicit almost lead them into a test scenario. Some users would ask if they could do things in a ‘different’ way to how they felt was expected.

‘Can I just…?’

It’s only when they’re talking you through what they would do and the unexpected happens, that they start to pay more natural attention to the task.

How to dress

Choosing clothes is a daily activity, but that in no way makes it an easy task. It becomes even more difficult when you have a casual but strict office and that can change day to day.

When your office lacks air-con and London finally has sun, you prioritise not dying. Suddenly you become a lot more lenient. You only realise your mistake when your colleague says she hopes you don’t get a serial killer. You notice when you can’t do anything about it.

From there it gets worse. I couldn’t tell if my first person was a little socially awkward due to a lack of eye contact, or if my shorts were what was making him uncomfortable. My last user of the day also commented on how “lucky” I was that I didn’t have to dress appropriately like he did for work. It was unbelievably awkward. Whilst ensuring your participants are comfortable in their abnormal environment, covering up is also for you. You do not know who is walking through that door.

Before you find yourself in that situation, remember to think ahead about your day. You’re meeting new people in a rather odd environment. It’s not about not wearing shorts specifically but be mindful to cover up a little more than usual.

Body language

In user testing people from all backgrounds and of all types are going to walk through your door. Which is great! It’s exactly what you want and need. But you have to be flexible from head to toe to accommodate for each user personality type. Throughout the whole y you need to ensure that you are the one in control in the room. Be confident in what you’re saying. Right now when I listen to myself it’s a lot of ‘ers’ and ‘umms’. I sound like I don’t know what I’m doing there and I try to speak too fast.

The second thing under body language that I tried to address quickly in sessions, is how friendly to be. I want users to feel at home, like they can tell me anything and be honest. Some participants were in hysterics about the website and had me laughing. From the comments they were saying I could tell they were honest even more so when the participant swore.

The relationship between a moderator and a participant is a strange one. It’s not as authoritarian as a teacher and student relationship, and it’s not collaborative as with your colleagues. This is also amplified by the completely different types of users that walk through your doors. Then add in the factor that you’re both being paid for your time, adds extra pressure to the situation. I stress when a user goes quiet because there are no quotes and they’re not voicing their situations. Pushing harder and constantly asking questions probably made the session feel rushed.


Another thing I became aware about was my body language and how it was affecting participants. I have been told that I have a sense of urgency. Timing is absolutely crucial. You have to keep time for each task, the overall session and when your next participant is arriving. For my first time moderating I knew this was a common problem, so I over stressed being on time. For one session, I was so worried about being on time I ended up finishing 10 minutes early. I was lucky in that the clients didn’t feel she was helpful anyway in the way she communicated. Afterwards it turned out that she was also a professional market research participant. When I turned the cameras off, the participant was quick to ask if we fell under a specific marketing guideline.

I noticed in a lot of sessions that participants were finishing 15 minutes early. I was lucky enough that clients were in the offices so I could ask them if they had anything else they would like to test. Yet, the first participant I expanded the first task with was a talker. We did not finish early. Whilst this made me a little more nervous, it was nice to realise that some users are going to be fast, and others slow. I can moderate as much as I like but the user’s pace to a point is out of my control. And that is precisely what needs to happen!

Between sessions I ensured that I was spending all my time with clients. I knew this was my time to brainstorm and sell them ideas on how we could tackle these issues.

In summary

User testing is the foundation to anything UX related. Time with your users is the most precious part of your job in the field. Ensuring everything is perfect is unrealistic. especially when it comes to dealing with so many types of people. You’re not friends, you’re not there to teach them. Additionally you’re sat watching this person struggle and you can’t help them.

Guide without prompt.

Users definitely keep you on your toes. When you’re in those sessions with cameras watching from every angle, it’s game on. As a user tells you a story to a question you haven’t asked, it’s awkward as they stare when you repeat the question.

You’re not going to get it perfect the first time, no matter how many blogs and books you’ve read. You’re probably not going to get it right the second time either. Just know you’re not the first to get things wrong and there are some solutions. Even though we talk to people every day this is not a normal circumstances. Practice is key! Besides what are the odds that you’re going to bump into your users again?

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