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Surviving Tricky and Sticky Research Situations (Book Review)

The Moderator’s Survival Guide book coverA review of
The Moderator’s Survival Guide: Handling Common, Tricky and Sticky Situations in User Research
By Donna Tedesco and Fiona Tranquada
Morgan Kauffman

Whether you are an experienced moderator or just starting out, The Moderator’s Survival Guide will be a great addition to your UX book collection. “Handling common, tricky, and sticky situations in user research,” is a great summation of the well-organized and carefully presented content in this resourceful book.

For beginners, the book provides an overview of the dos and don’ts of moderation. Among other things, it describes the role and responsibilities of the moderator during user research activities. It emphasizes the importance of the moderator for ensuring the comfort and well being of participants, maintaining control throughout the activity, and taking responsibility when issues arise.

Experienced moderators will find advice on handling common situations, such as participants arriving late or asking for assistance with tasks, and dealing with dreaded but predictable technical issues (eek). Readers will benefit from learning how the authors dealt with each situation and read their recommendations. You are also likely to discover situations you have not experienced or imagined. For example, in my case, I learned how to deal with natural disasters, participants bringing children or pets to sessions, and addressing participants who are hitting on you.

The book is well organized by topic, which makes it easy to navigate and great for reference. Each section begins with the description of a “sticky situation,” and notes with which method(s) the situation is most likely to occur and with what frequency. Recommended actions, or “moderation patterns,” are defined early in the book and noted for each situation. These are followed by tips on what to do and say, as well as what not to do and say. Suggestions for how to avoid each situation entirely are included as well.

Another thing I really like about this book is the sprinkling of real life—relevant moderating stories provided by fellow practitioners. These “Survival Stories” provide additional guidance on how to resolve common problems in research sessions. The authors have also compiled a series of videos, accessible from their website, to accompany many of the issues they discuss. This is especially helpful for people like me who learn best from seeing something in context.

The book concludes with recommendations for improving your moderating skills, which again, makes for great content for both beginners and experienced moderators.  For the latter, you’re bound to learn something new—if nothing else, different approaches or perspectives.

I enjoyed this book as a cover-to-cover read and will most certainly use it in the future for reference. I highly recommend it.

Sticky Situations Shown in Video Scenarios

The book website has seven videos that illustrate some of the problems moderators might encounter, and show positive, effective ways to handle them.

If you’ve ever dealt with the “Self-Blaming Participant,” this video shows a way to reassure them without biasing the session. It demonstrates three patterns: Take Responsibility, Engage the Participant, and Reassure the Participant.

To learn more about how to use the videos, start with the video introduction page on the site.


Transcript of the Video

The video is not captioned, so we have provided a transcript.

Music plays over opening montage of images

The Moderator’s Survival Guide: The Nervous and Self-Blaming Participant (Video 1)

Moderator: So, have you ever participated in a usability session before?

Participant: (looking around nervously) mmm-mmm… never.

Moderator: Ok, that’s alright– I’m going to be telling you about what we’re doing for the next hour…

Participant: I thought there’d be more people. Is it just me?

Moderator: Yep, it’s just me and you here today…(redirecting) um, so basicaly what you’re gonna be doing is evaluating an application on the tablet and giving us feedback about your experience.

Participant: Oh… well, I don’t use my tablet very often at all. So I’m not sure you really want me doing this. But you should talk to my nine year old daughter. She is on it all the time like a pro…

Mod: That’s alright. We deliberately bring people of all levels of familiarity with tablets in, because we want this app to work for everyone.

Part: Ok. Um… OK…I’ll be honest, I’m a little nervous. Um..I just don’t want to fail…the test.

Mod: You know, this definitely isn’t a test. This is your evaluation of the design of the app, so if you’re having trouble, or anything’s confusing, it’s a reflection on the design and not on you. So, we do this to learn more about this so we take the information back to our design team so they can make it better. Does that make sense?

Part: Mmhmm, yeah…. I’ll…do my best.

Mod: Ok, great. Let me tell you a little bit more about what we’re going to do. First off, thanks again … (fade out)

A little while later…

Mod: Ok, so now we’re ready to start our scenarios. I’d like you to use this app to find a list of all your tasks that are scheduled for tomorrow.

Part: Tasks scheduled for tomorrow? (Looking nervous)

Mod: Mmhmm, that’s right. (Redirecting:) So, where do you think you’d get started?

Part: Mmm– I don’t know. Would I touch that?

Mod: (Deflecting) So, proceed as you normally would. Like you were at home and I wasn’t here sitting next to you.

Part: Ok, I guess I’d click on that then. Oooh…oh I don’t know, I don’t know what just happened. I didn’t do that right, did I? (Looks at mod, who is still looking down at the tablet). Is that ok?

Mod: So, anything you do today is OK. Just be sure and tell me what you’re thinking as you go along.

Part: Ok, sorry, yeah, right…um, so… I guess I’m looking for a place where I might manage my tasks, right? (Looks at moderator but no response so continues…) So I guess I…do that? Oh. No… That? No. (Taps on tablet a couple more times). Oh– what’d I do now? I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m not really good at this at all.

Mod: So, remember that we’re evaluating the app and not you. (redirecting) So, what were you expecting when you clicked on that?

Part: Well, there I thought I was gonna see a list of all my tasks for tomorrow. But… it looks like it’s something totally different. Like, I guess maybe everything that I have to do? That I haven’t done yet? I don’t know. What would I do now?

Mod: So, what would you do next, again, as if I weren’t sitting here next to you?

Part: (Laughs) I’d call my nine year old daughter in, that’s for sure! (Mod kindly laughs in response) Um… I guess I saw that icon earlier over there. So maybe I’d click that? (Looks at mod almost waiting for a response but mod doesn’t say anything. Then looks back down and taps on the tablet).…yeah. It kinda looks like my task list. (Silent pause, looks a little longer. With confidence:) Yeah…that’s it.

Mod: Ok, if you’re ready we can move on to the next scenario. (Participant nods with more confidence. Fades out).

A little while later…

Part: This one is reallyyy hard. I– I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry, I can’t figure anything else out here. I’m sorry. (Mod responds with a sympathetic look and stays quiet)

I just don’t get why it’s in ‘Profile’. I…I-I-I don’t know. Am I the only one that didn’t get it?

Mod: You know what, what we’re looking to see is what’s working for you and what’s not working for you. Remember you’re partnering with us to help us make the app better. Everything you’ve been saying today has been very helpful.

Part: Really?

Mod: Absolutely. But, I want to make sure you’re OK to continue. We can stop or take a break at any time, if you need?

Part: No…I’m OK. Thanks. Thanks for being patient.

Mod: Ok… and…

Part: Can– can you tell me if anybody else got that though?!

Mod: (Deflecting) So what really matters is your experience with the app, and you know, we want to make sure it works for everybody, including you.

Part: Ok, well, I can tell you that it is not working for me right now, that’s for sure.

Mod: OK… we only have one more task. Is it OK if we move onto that?

Part: Yeah.

Mod: OK, great. (fades out).

Video Credits:

Actors: Margy Bergel (Participant), Ellen Mangan (Moderator)

Director of Photography & Editor: Chris Portal

Sound Engineer: Dennis Ganz

Screenwriting & Directing: Authors