A guide for researchers new to qualitative moderating, or experts who want a quick refresher

Catherine Chen
Mar 13, 2018 · 6 min read

I’ve had a great time learning more about moderating through conducting my first few qualitative studies and reading resources from both the Facebook and external research communities. One thing that has surprised me is that even after internalizing moderating best practices, it’s been very easy for me to accidentally revert to speaking as I’d normally speak in “real-life” conversations outside of the lab.

It’s a dangerous habit. Ordinary conversations are meant to be dialogues in which, ideally, you and your conversational partner share an equal amount of information. Moderating, by contrast, is a “systematic and structured retrieval of information.” The participant should have speakership, and the moderator’s sole job is to facilitate the sharing and articulation of the participant’s thoughts.

When conversational conventions creep into the lab, the participant may not have enough room to share deeply and accurately. The risk of incorrect or skewed responses rises, potentially compromising the quality and reliability of the data collected. To counter this risk, I’ve developed a set of phrases I keep in my back pocket for common moderating situations. They’ve helped me ensure that the responses I get from participants are as accurate and unbiased as possible.

Here are six common qualitative interviewing situations, along with conversational traps to avoid for each, as well as phrases to use instead.

1. Getting started

Avoid: Hi, it’s great to meet you! How are you?

Starting with an open-ended, conversational question invites the participant to quickly veer off-topic. Building rapport is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of getting valuable information. A better use of the beginning of an interview is to set expectations. When the participant has an idea of how you might behave, as well as their own role, there’s less room for surprises that could impede the flow of reliable information.

Consider using:

  • Keep in mind there are no right or wrong answers. We’re evaluating the designs and not you!
  • You’re here to help us improve the ideas we’re working on. Any honest feedback is appreciated. Nothing you say will hurt anyone’s feelings.
  • If you ask me questions, I may not answer you or I may be vague. Please know I’m not being unfriendly, I’m just trying to stay neutral.
  • It’s important for you to think aloud and talk to me about what’s going through your mind, just to help me understand.
  • We have a lot to get through, so I may at times gently push things along so we can make sure to cover everything.

2. Introducing prototypes or designs

Avoid: Look at this cool prototype we built!

The word “cool” expresses your positive opinion of what’s being shown, and may influence the participant to respond more positively to what they’re looking at. (“Prototype” should also be avoided, as it introduces tech jargon the participant might not understand.)

Consider using:

  • Here’s something we’re working on.
  • Here are some ideas we’d like to get feedback on.
  • I’m going to go ahead and show you some ideas we’re exploring.

3. Participant has spent too much time on one task

Avoid: Oh no, we’ve spent way too much time on this! We need to move on to the next thing right now.

When you’re running out of time in an everyday life situation, it might be normal to express alarm. But in an interview, seeming frazzled can create a stressful environment for the participant. When they feel rushed or uncomfortable, they’re less likely to deeply and accurately share their thoughts. If time is running short, or it’s time for a transition, be sure to let the participant know in a calm manner.

Note: In sessions where there will be multiple unrelated tasks involved, it’s key to set expectations up front. Before the session begins, say something like, “We’ll be going through activities today that aren’t related to one another.”

Consider using:

  • Let’s stop here for a second.
  • Thank you for that. This ties perfectly into [what we’re going to do next].
  • We’re going to move along to something else now.
  • OK, that’s all I was curious about.
  • I want to make sure we have enough time for …

4. Acknowledging THAT you’re actively listening

Avoid: Fantastic! Great! Perfect!

This is too positive and affirmative, and qualifies their feedback rather than acknowledging it. Consciously or not, the participant may register the times they don’t get a “Great!” and start answering questions in a way that’s more likely to elicit positive feedback.

Consider using:

  • Gotcha.
  • OK.
  • M-hm.
  • Thank you for that.
  • That’s helpful for us to know.
  • That’s good to know.

Note: Use these sparingly, as they can interrupt a participant’s train of thought. Don’t feel obligated to provide verbal acknowledgement to everything the participant says. Silence can be considered a moderating tool, since it gives the participant more room to think. Try counting to 3 prior to speaking.

5. Participant says something you want to probe

Avoid: Huh? I don’t get it.

This blunt response can be harmful in a couple of different ways. Self-assured participants may feel defensive and begin to overly justify their opinions. Less confident participants may doubt their opinions and begin to answer in a way more likely to win your approval.

Consider using:

  • Tell me more about [quote participant’s response].
  • How so?
  • In what way?
  • What makes you say that?
  • What do you mean by that?

Note: Avoid “why?” in this situation, as it often comes across as too interrogative.

6. Participant shares negative feedback

Avoid: You’re totally right, that’s so difficult! You’re not the only one. Other people struggled with this, too.

This reassuring response may encourage the participant to continue talking about an issue in order to keep getting affirmation. It can also subtly influence their overall reactions and approach to the product. The moderator should never interject any personal thoughts or describe the experiences of other participants, even if it’s to comfort the participant.

Consider using:

  • Makes sense.
  • OK.
  • Thank you for sharing.
  • Thanks for the honest feedback.
  • That’s helpful to hear.

Don’t Forget, Tone Matters!

I like to remind myself that tone of voice is just as important as my choice of words. A simple tonal change can make “How so?” sound caustic instead of curious, potentially skewing the participant’s response.

Was there anything I missed? What are some of your favorite moderating phrases?


Special thanks to Liz Keneski, Donna Tedesco, Danielle Macdonald, John Amir-Abbassi, and Erin Baker for all the thoughtful feedback and editing along the way!

Author: Catherine Chen, Researcher at Facebook

Illustrator: Sarah Lawrence

Additional Resources

Donna Tedesco’s book The Moderator’s Survival Guide is an incredible resource that covers common and uncommon situations that might happen in the lab — and how to respond. Steve Portigal’s book Interviewing Users also includes some helpful frameworks and question types to use at different points of the moderating process. For a brief overview of moderating tips, I recommend Moderating Best Practices by Natalie Tulsiani.

Facebook Research

Learnings from the people who study human behavior for Facebook

Catherine Chen

Written by

UX Researcher @Facebook. Formerly @Everlane. London by way of San Francisco.

Facebook Research

Learnings from the people who study human behavior for Facebook

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