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Photo by Charudatta Phatak

Tips on moderating and interviewing from an Argentine Tango Dancer

Nicole M Hill, PhD
Mar 31 · 7 min read

Best practices in facilitating user experience research sessions

By Nicole M Hill

Argentine Tango is a century-old partnered dance known for its close-body embrace, connection, and intricacy. It’s also an improvisation dance that requires the leader to clearly and effectively communicate and listen to their followers. When this happens, the dance is delightful and when it doesn’t, disaster ensues. Partner dancing isn’t really different from other forms of communication, and much of what I have learned as a leader and follower can be translated to my work as a User Experience Researcher. Below are some tips on moderating and facilitating one-on-one interviews from the perspective of an Argentine tango leader.

Make your dance partner comfortable and establish rapport

Social dances such as tango, do not require you to bring your own partner and in fact, encourage you to dance with the broad community. In the case of Argentine tango, it is customary for people to dance with different partners throughout the night. Dancing with a variety of people is invigorating but it also brings unique challenges. When strangers dance, you never know the personality, style, or skill level of your partner, so the leader must quickly assess the situation while putting their partner at ease.

This is similar to beginning an interview or usability session. Part of the fun and challenge of user research is you never know who is going to show up in terms of personality, introvertism/extrovertism, or communication style. They may have never participated in research and be really anxious, or they may come with their own agenda of things they would like to discuss during your session, some of which may be completely off-topic.

So it is critical to take your time, introduce yourself, and clearly explain the focus and format of the session including their role, and solicit questions regarding any confusion. Be gracious, establish your role as a curious listener, and watch your body language. Don’t rush this introduction, even if your session is starting late or must end early.

Novice leaders will often immediately begin to dance, while experts use the first phase or two of the music to establish a rapport with their followers. The people who rush, are likely to have a rocky start and have to pause and start over again in order to recover. In my experience, the same is true when moderating, you aren’t saving time by rushing through, you are setting yourself up for needing to start over again.

Don’t make your partner think

When I first learned to lead my teacher often told me “don’t give her a choice.” He wasn’t being sexist, this was his shorthand for telling me to clearly communicate what I’m leading to my follower so that the follower doesn’t have to guess and ultimately choose our direction/next step. As a leader, that requires me to know where I’m going and commit to the step so that I can immediately lead it to the follower, who will in term respond. When dancing, that is easier said than done. In moderation, that means creating a well-written discussion guide free from double-barrelled questions, which often result in the interviewee choosing which question to answer and which one to ignore.

It also means eliminating biased and leading (no pun intended) questions from your guide. We have this in dance too, the leader fails to be clear but the follower intuits what is being asked and politely executes the steps, all the while the leader thinks he has masterfully executed the move. Be careful how you ask questions and establish roles (i.e., we are here to learn from the user, who is the expert) otherwise the interviewee may tell you what they think you want to hear — the Hawthorne effect.

Be prepared to adjust and pivot

So you got off to a great start and everything is going well until it isn’t. Maybe you sped up and lost your follower along the way, maybe she is confused by or unfamiliar with what you are attempting to lead. Or maybe your follower does something unexpected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, such as an embellishment that inspires and opens up new possibilities?

Good moderators, like good leaders, are always listening and adjusting. Is the interviewee confused or did they say something interesting that is worth further exploration? Yes, you (hopefully) prepared an interview guide, and you have come with objectives regarding what you intend to learn. But your guide is not a script. And your moderation style should be flexible enough to probe on interesting, unanticipated, and most importantly fruitful, highly-relevant topics.

What’s more, it should be conversational, which isn’t possible if you insist on strictly following your guide. And doing so may also make you seem like you aren’t paying attention by asking questions that were just answered (which is critically different than asking for further clarification and elaboration).

Similarly, the goal of tango is connection, improvision, and creating a new dance with every partner, every time. Just like you should strive to create something new, you must understand that you won’t get there by repeating the steps that you learned in class, over and over again. Don’t let your guide become a crutch, when well crafted and used, it is a tool to unlock unknown possibilities.

Finally, if confusion arises it is time to slow down, re-establish the context, and reframe the question, which is what leaders do when they stand in place simply stepping in time with the music before proceeding.

Leave room for embellishment

Great leaders pause and give their followers space to embellish, while novices run from one step to another, throwing their followers off in the process. As a follower, when I’m dancing with ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ I’m always in defense mode, protecting my feet and body from potential injury and trying to do what I think is being asked.

Silence is a moderator’s best friend. Why? If you ask one question after the next in quick succession, you train your interviewee to only answer exactly what is being asked. But when you pause, people naturally fill the space, often with the most interesting and unexpected insights. Similarly when master leaders pause their followers can now safely fill that space with interesting embellishments.

Transitions: Be smooth and collect yourself

You’ve got a lot of ground to cover on the dance floor, with many steps to execute. Your dance should be elegant, not haphazard. So how do you do this? In Argentina, leaders are taught to plan out the dance in the phrase or the 8-count. Each phrase contains a new sequence of steps with a clear beginning and an end. Not only is this the building block for complex improvisation, it also ensures clean movement. And in tango, both the leader and follower are taught to “collect,” so that each step flows through another. You achieve this by bringing your feet together when moving from one step to another (this is the antithesis of how cowboys walk.)

Transitions are equally important when moderating. Signal to the interviewee when you are moving from topic to topic so that you don’t lose or confuse them. Also, take time to collect (pun intended) your thoughts. Did you cover everything that you wanted to cover? Are there any questions or topics that you want to follow up on? Don’t rush yourself simply because you have many topics and questions to hit. Be sure to cover key priorities. There is nothing worse than realizing you forgot to ask or follow up on your most important question. I often announce that I’m catching up on or reviewing my notes so I don’t feel pressure to rush ahead. And while you are collecting your thoughts your participant may say something interesting to fill the silence!

Don’t teach on the dance floor

This is a big tango and moderating faux pas. In tango, leaders sometimes try to teach the follower a new move, and often it is the leader that doesn’t know how to properly execute the move. Regardless of the source of disconnect, it is best not to teach on the dance floor outside of class or practices. The best leaders provide the best experience by listening to the follower and not trying to teach flashy, advanced moves on the fly. Teaching rarely leads to the desired outcome in the moment.

Similarly, don’t correct your interviewee, other than if you believe that they have misunderstood your question. You should have already set the expectation that you are here to learn from them and that there are no right and wrong answers. Here is where the metaphor breaks down a bit; you are the student, they are the master. When your participant says something contradictory or incorrect, this is an opportunity to be curious and probe. Often that is where the insight is hiding.

Practice your craft

Finally, continue to practice your craft and learn from master moderators. The best dancers, both leads and followers, are lifelong students. The ones that stop taking classes after gaining some proficiency end up being the worst and even dangerous dancers. Seek out feedback and listen to old recordings to identify opportunities areas to work on. There is plenty of good content on moderating as well. I recommend checking out Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal.

Do you have any moderator tips (from dance or other hobbies)? Share them in the comments section.

Special thanks to Charudatta Phatak for allowing me to use one of my all-time favorite photos (of me dancing tango).

Nicole M Hill, PhD

Written by

I’m a User Experience Researcher. My superpowers are intentional connections, whether insights-to-actions or samba steps-to-syncopation!

Groupon Design Union

A collection of stories, case studies, and tips 'n tricks from the Product, Visual and User Research folks at Groupon

Nicole M Hill, PhD

Written by

I’m a User Experience Researcher. My superpowers are intentional connections, whether insights-to-actions or samba steps-to-syncopation!

Groupon Design Union

A collection of stories, case studies, and tips 'n tricks from the Product, Visual and User Research folks at Groupon

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