The role of a moderator in Human Factors studies... | PDD


April 6 2017
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The role of a moderator in Human Factors studies…

It may sound strange to say it but the role of a moderator, in my opinion, is to be a bit of a Chameleon. And a few acting skills don’t go amiss either! Let me explain…

The main purpose of a moderator in any kind of study is to engage the participant in meaningful discussion about the topic in question, without disclosing any personal feelings, answering questions or introducing any kind of bias. Easy in principle, but in practice? There are a number of obstacles that need to be overcome to ensure the session is as productive as it can be.

Be approachable

Initially you need to be welcoming; nervous and uncomfortable participants will consciously or subconsciously hold back, leading to the potential for lacklustre responses and missed insights. When a participant first arrives you need to be able to have a bit of familiar chat about the weather, or their journey in, which puts the participant at ease before the study commences and gets them in the mood for dialogue. This also needs to be tailored towards the participants you are seeing – most adolescents, for example, wouldn’t be put at ease by chat about the congested roundabout next to the office or the recent spate of snow seen across Scotland!

Participant personalities

You need to understand the limitations of the participant groups you are talking to. This is both in a physical sense and in an emotional one. During medical-related sessions we often have the privilege of talking to people who suffer daily with both physical and cognitive impairments, which can often lead to emotional challenges. Our job, at the end of the day, is to try and make life easier for them in the long-term through the development of safe and effective medical devices. However, this might result in putting them in somewhat uncomfortable situations in the short term, in order to understand the boundaries of the products that are under investigation. As moderators we need to be acutely aware of this and to understand when the stress of the situation may be getting too much for specific participants. Our aim is to get as much information as possible for the benefit of the client (and future benefit of the patient group), without unduly stressing or distressing those that have chosen to help.

On an analogous note, you need to be aware of different participant temperaments during group research sessions. Very boisterous personalities may need to be calmed and those of a quieter disposition encouraged to speak up, in order to get a full range of feedback from the group assembled. There are many tricks and techniques to help with this, ranging from the discreet (such as the redirection of questions and use of names) to the more direct (simply asking a participant to pause, and let others voice their thoughts). Again, it is a moderator’s responsibility to ensure personalities are managed without causing embarrassment or discomfort to those they are talking to.

Probing and leading

We have to be able to probe issues, likes and dislikes without leading or biasing the participant. The details of actually achieving this can be more complex than it sounds. This is, mostly, where the concept of being a ‘Chameleon’ comes in. You need to be sensitive to the character of each participant in order to get them to talk and open up, and you need to reflect their attitude. Some participants need questions to talk; delicate prompts about particular areas that they can grab onto in order to start speaking. Others need silence from the moderator; a chance to think about their response and follow the path of their thoughts. You never really know what will work for each participant and you need to be reactive in the situation to make sure you are taking the right approach and not missing, or cutting off, any potential insights whilst at the same time ensuring the session stays on topic. We are a sounding board – or a mirror if you will – that blends into the background but provides an attentive and interested ear. The session is not about us, but the quality of information that we can tease out of the participants.

This last is an area where it is so easy to fall into some of the many traps of moderating, such as talking too much, answering questions, or interviewing rather than observing. Even the most experienced moderators fall into these occasionally. Something that has always helped me is to watch back your moderation sessions after completion of the study with a view to picking out areas where you believe you performed well, as well as those where you think you might have slipped up. Pick a couple of pointers that you can take away with you; a couple of tricks that worked well and you could use again, and a couple of pitfalls that you need to avoid next time. The skill of moderation is a continuous upward learning curve and it’s always good to be proactive and keep climbing!

Participants have a habit of asking questions of the moderator when in study situations. This is a natural response if people come across circumstances that they are unfamiliar with, and is actually an easy way to get people talking through their thought processes during tasks and activities. The trick from a moderator perspective is to not fall into the trap of answering the questions as this could easily lead to compromised study results. A technique that I find works well in most situations is to lay out at the start that the participant is encouraged to speak aloud and should ask questions, but state that they shouldn’t be surprised if you are unable to answer the questions until the end of the task or session. If questions do arise, you can attempt to reverse them by asking the participant what they would do in that situation or what they think rather than answering directly.


Being 100% transparent, the 20th (or 30th, or 40th…) evaluation session is never as revelatory as the first. It is possible that you will hear some new insights from a participant this far down the queue but the likelihood is that the majority of participant feedback and actions have been heard or observed before, many times. It’s only natural that the intrigue of the moderator fades with the repetition, so this is where some amateur acting skills come in. In order to ensure the 40th participant keeps sharing their thoughts, feelings and reasoning and doesn’t feel closed off by moderator reaction, we have to make the information provided appear as unique and interesting as if it were from the first participant. The information is valuable; all feedback adds to the case for any design changes, the reasoning for chosen design embodiments or development routes, or approvals for the products in hand, and so it needs to be collated and probed in a consistent manner and to a consistent level for all participants. The participants are also valuable; we appreciate the time that they spend with us and want to ensure they have a good experience of the process and we need to ensure this is translated to all.

To summarise…

There are 3 key things I believe should be remembered when going into any form of study:

1. Be adaptable. Be empathetic to your study participants and tailor your interaction to best suit their personality and their abilities. This will aid in the discovery of as many insights as possible.

2. Be consistent in your feedback. Practice your acting skills to ensure your reactions to the responses of the first participant are the same as your reactions to the last. But don’t be afraid to change things if you find your methods aren’t working or there is something particular you want to explore!

3. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s how you react and recover from missteps that matters within the parameters of the study room. Ensure you review your performance at the end of the study in order to highlight areas of, and methods for, future improvement.

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Posted by Hollie
Principal – Human Factors & Research

Languages spoken: English.
The last thing that inspired me: Someone saying “You can’t…”. Yes I can!
My dream project: Designing and building (with a little help) my own home.
My obsession: Tea and cake.