The Moderator's Survival Guide

The Moderator's Survival Guide

Handling Common, Tricky, and Sticky Situations in User Research

1st Edition - September 25, 2013

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  • Authors: Donna Tedesco, Fiona Tranquada
  • Paperback ISBN: 9780124047006
  • eBook ISBN: 9780124047143

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The Moderator's Survival Guide is your indispensable resource for navigating the rocky shoals of your one-on-one user research sessions. Inside, you’ll find guidance for nearly 100 diverse situations (ranging from business-as-usual to tricky and sticky) that might occur during usability studies, contextual inquiries, or user interviews. As a moderator, you are responsible for the well-being of the participant, your study, and your organization. You must be prepared for anything that may happen, from your technology failing to the participant quailing. Use this guide to identify your best next steps, react appropriately, and survive any challenges that comes your way.

Key Features

  • Practical, field-tested, and actionable tips for what to do and say—and what NOT to do or say—in each situation.
  • Key patterns and extensive examples to sharpen your approach to the commonplace and prepare you for the unlikely.
  • Illustrative "survival stories" contributed by numerous professionals on the front lines of user research.


UX professionals (UX designers, usability engineers, usability architects, usability researchers, UX managers)

Table of Contents

  • Dedication


    Survival Stories

    List of Videos

    List of Situations




    Author Bios


    Why we wrote this book

    Who this book is for

    What you’ll learn

    One-on-one user research methods

    Language used in this book

    How this book is organized

    Sidebars and survival stories

    Companion website and videos

    Part 1: Your Moderation Toolkit

    Chapter 1. Moderation Matters: Power, Responsibility, and Style


    1.1 “Are they laughing at me?”

    1.2 Power and responsibility

    1.3 The session ringmaster

    1.4 The science and art spectrum

    1.5 Your moderating style

    1.6 Effective adaptation

    Chapter 2. In the Trenches: Six Steps for Handling Situations


    2.1 Take a moment to evaluate the situation before jumping to action

    2.2 Resolve any threats to physical safety

    2.3 Verify that you’re not causing or magnifying the situation

    2.4 Check the participant’s comfort level

    2.5 Use careful language and tone to probe on the situation and begin to resolve it

    2.6 Regain control to bring the session back on track

    Chapter 3. Mix and Match: Your Moderation Patterns Toolbox


    3.1 Take responsibility

    3.2 Clarify the task/question

    3.3 Redirect the participant

    3.4 Reassure the participant

    3.5 Build engagement

    3.6 Disengage from the participant

    3.7 Take a break

    3.8 Shift the focus

    3.9 End the session early

    3.10 Choosing the best pattern for your situation

    Part 2: Your Survival Guide

    Chapter 4. Recruiting Mishaps: Participants You Weren’t Expecting


    4.1 Participant does not seem to meet a key recruit criteria

    4.2 Participant either refuses to or can’t do a key task

    4.3 Participant has an unexpected physical feature

    4.4 Participant is unfamiliar with the equipment

    4.5 Participant has difficulty reading

    4.6 Participant or others ask you to help

    Chapter 5. Participant Misconceptions: Not What the Participant was Expecting


    5.1 Participant thinks that she is participating in a focus group

    5.2 Participant doesn’t want to be recorded or has other concerns about the consent form

    5.3 Participant has different expectations for the compensation

    5.4 Participant brings you to a conference room or other space instead of her office/workspace

    5.5 Participant treats a contextual inquiry like an interview

    5.6 Participant brings someone else to participate with her

    5.7 Participant thinks the session is a job interview

    5.8 Participant brings a child or pet to the session

    Chapter 6. Some Guidance Required: Participants in Need of Shepherding


    6.1 Participant is reluctant to say anything negative

    6.2 Participant does something you don’t understand

    6.3 Participant is not thinking aloud

    6.4 Participant is not able to complete a necessary task

    6.5 Participant ignores or pretends to understand your question

    6.6 Participant not approaching workflow naturally

    6.7 Participant does not have any negative feedback

    6.8 Participant believes he has successfully completed a task

    6.9 Observers are not engaged in the session

    Chapter 7. Make it Work: Handling Technical Obstacles


    7.1 Technical issues arise with your setup and/or equipment

    7.2 Remote participant experiences difficulty joining

    7.3 Facility loses its Internet connection

    7.4 Remote participant drops off the call

    7.5 Prototype or product changes unexpectedly

    Chapter 8. Is This Right? Responding to Uncertain Participants


    8.1 Participant looks for affirmation

    8.2 Participant asks for your opinion

    8.3 Participant looks or sounds uncomfortable and/or nervous

    8.4 Participant is self-blaming

    8.5 Participant asks, “Did other people have trouble with this?”

    8.6 Participant is unwilling or unsure

    Chapter 9. What’s Going On? Recovering from External Interruptions


    9.1 Participant is running late

    9.2 Observers are loud and distracting

    9.3 Participant receives a call during the session

    9.4 Participant cancels or is a no-show

    9.5 Observer unexpectedly interacts with the participant

    9.6 Session interrupted accidentally by an observer or someone else

    9.7 Session interrupted by someone the participant knows

    Chapter 10. Get on Track: Overcoming Momentum Blockers


    10.1 Participant starts going on a tangent

    10.2 Participant consistently focuses on irrelevant details

    10.3 Participant does something very unexpected

    10.4 Participant is slow or thorough

    10.5 Participant gives vague responses to questions

    10.6 Participant is difficult to hear or understand

    10.7 You don’t have time to complete everything

    10.8 Participant struggles excessively with a task

    Chapter 11. Take the Wheel: Guiding Wayward Participants


    11.1 Remote participant is obviously distracted

    11.2 Participant is distressed by a personal line of questioning

    11.3 Participant insists that she would never do something

    11.4 Participant is frustrated by the prototype’s limited functionality

    11.5 Participant seems annoyed at your neutrality

    11.6 Participant does not seem to respect you or take you seriously

    11.7 Participant becomes insulting or has an agenda

    11.8 Participant becomes agitated by a product’s usability issues

    Chapter 12. A Delicate Touch: Addressing Sensitive Situations


    12.1 Participant is extremely entertaining and friendly

    12.2 Something personal, inappropriate, or confidential is visible

    12.3 Participant is obviously distracted by external circumstances

    12.4 Participant tells you something personal

    12.5 Participant has a disconcerting or distracting physical attribute

    12.6 You have to point out something potentially embarrassing

    12.7 Participant seems upset

    12.8 Participant has an unexpected disability or service animal

    Chapter 13. Uncomfortable Interactions: Responding to Awkward Situations


    13.1 Participant curses or makes inappropriate comments

    13.2 You know the participant, or the participant knows you

    13.3 Participant knows an unexpected amount about you

    13.4 Participant flirts with you

    13.5 Participant does something awkward or uncomfortable

    13.6 Participant makes a strangely specific request

    13.7 Participant makes request during a site visit

    Chapter 14. Safety First: Minimizing Emotional and Physical Distress


    14.1 Fire alarm goes off or the facility needs to be evacuated

    14.2 A natural disaster (e.g., earthquake, tornado) occurs

    14.3 Participant starts to look ill or otherwise unwell

    14.4 You begin to feel unwell while moderating a session

    14.5 You notice a bad smell or have an allergic reaction

    14.6 Participant seems to be drunk or stoned

    14.7 Participant touches you

    14.8 Participant’s environment contains dangerous items

    14.9 Participant is doing something illegal or threatening

    Part 3: Improving Your Skills

    Chapter 15. An Ounce of Prevention: Avoiding and Mitigating Situations


    15.1 Recruiting process

    15.2 Your study plan

    15.3 The product, space, and technology

    15.4 Your observers

    15.5 Your technique

    Chapter 16. Sharpening Steel: How to Improve Your Skills and Help Others Improve Theirs


    16.1 Working on your moderating skills

    16.2 Integrating tips and feedback

    16.3 Giving feedback to other moderators

    16.4 Spread your wings


    Appendix A. What to Say

    Appendix B. Preparing for a Successful Session

    The recruiting process

    Your study plan

    The product, space, and technology

    Your observers

    Your technique

    Appendix C. Resources

    Books to help you plan, run, and analyze your user research session

    Professional organizations and conferences

    Web resources



Product details

  • No. of pages: 364
  • Language: English
  • Copyright: © Morgan Kaufmann 2013
  • Published: September 25, 2013
  • Imprint: Morgan Kaufmann
  • Paperback ISBN: 9780124047006
  • eBook ISBN: 9780124047143

About the Authors

Donna Tedesco

Donna Tedesco
Donna Tedesco is a Senior User Experience Specialist with over ten years of user research experience. She has published and presented at local, national and international conferences, and is co-author with Bill Albert and Tom Tullis of the book, "Beyond the Usability Lab: Conducting Large-Scale Online User Experience Studies." Donna received a BS in Engineering Psychology/Human Factors from Tufts University School of Engineering and a MS in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University.

Affiliations and Expertise

Senior Usability Specialist

Fiona Tranquada

Fiona Tranquada
Fiona Tranquada is a Senior Usability Consultant with over ten years of user research experience. She has published and presented at local and national conferences and is an active Board member for the Boston chapter of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA). Fiona received a BA in Professional Writing and Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon and an MS in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University.

Affiliations and Expertise

Senior Usability Consultant

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