The Moderator's Survival Guide, 1st Edition

Handling Common, Tricky, and Sticky Situations in User Research

The Moderator's Survival Guide, 1st Edition,Donna Tedesco,Fiona Tranquada,ISBN9780124047006


Morgan Kaufmann




235 X 191

This book provides the tools you need for dealing with the common (and uncommon) situations you may encounter while moderating a user research session.

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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.


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.


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

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 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

The Moderator's Survival Guide, 1st Edition



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



Quotes and reviews

"…guide to the moderating role played by researchers in product user research…Eighteen "survival stories" are included throughout the book, narrated by user researchers who have handled unexpected or awkward situations with study participants. Appendices consolidate recommendations of specific phrasing…", April 2014
"This is a sample chapter from Donna Tedesco and Fiona Tranquada’s new book, The Moderator’s Survival Guide: Handling Common, Tricky, and Sticky Situations in User Research. 2014 Morgan Kaufmann.", April 7, 2014

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