As a Moderator….

Written by Neal Sandin

On moderating

“As a moderator…” will be an ongoing, semi-regular series discussing my thoughts on being a qualitative market researcher.    Since becoming a moderator since 2007 – having conducted numerous focus groups, in-depth interviews, home visits, and so forth – I have had some wonderful sessions and some pretty terrible ones (albeit, the terrible ones have become both less frequent and less terrible). The goal here is not to detail my experience nor is it to regale the reader with stories.  I am also not going to be discussing specific techniques such as “laddering” – there are several books that explain them quite well already.

My goal is to discuss theories and thoughts on what it takes to be an effective moderator, one that not only unearths findings for his/her client but also doesn’t get burned out.  I will state upfront that I am a work in progress – I don’t have it all figured out, I don’t have a school or training facility (not yet at least), and there is undoubtedly much more for me to learn.  Nevertheless, if some of what I write today and onwards is of any help – even if only to myself – then all to the good.


Much of what I will write is based on feedback from clients and colleagues.


First of all, it is important to realize that qualitative interviews aren’t purely composed of getting an answer and moving on to the next question.  They are conversations – some more formal than others, no doubt – but ideally there is a bit of back and forth with the respondent(s).    The goal, in no small part, is to get the respondents to open up and communicate.


This communication can be hampered by a variety of factors; one of which is that the respondents are in a room with strangers, in a strange setting, being asked strange questions by a stranger.  Their willingness to give any deep considered belief or opinion is hampered by the oddness that is inherent in qualitative research.


Therefore, a key factor (but by no means the only one) in being an effective moderator is empathizing with the respondents’ situation and the strangeness of it all.  As a moderator, one wants to get accurate real life thoughts, opinions, associations, experiences and so on, but he/she is attempting this in an artificial environment.  A skilled moderator puts the respondents’ minds at ease, minimizing the strangeness of the situation, although it is still there regardless.  Even when one goes to the respondent’s home (as in home visits), the respondent is in an artificial situation because he/she is now acting as the host.


A moderator who jumps right in and starts asking questions will get nowhere fast.  Acknowledging the situation, even talking about it during your introduction, is a vital but sometimes overlooked necessity of a qualitative interview.