Natalia Infante Caylor, PhD.
Many times, potential clients ask if there is a difference between a moderator and an interviewer. The answer is yes. Understanding the differences could help when working with a professional moderator. The role of a moderator before, during, and after a focus group is key to the success of your exploratory research or study. A moderator can be a gatekeeper of valuable information if not done correctly. The next paragraphs will explain in more detail the differences, as well as other important factors about professional moderators.
Moderator versus interviewer
A moderator refers to someone who conducts focus groups with several people at the same time, while an interviewer is typically someone who conducts individual interviews. When working with a moderator or an interviewer it is important to ask and look for the following professional qualities.
Sometimes is good to work with a moderator who is detached from the topic or someone who is not very familiar about the topic being discussed, depending of course on the field. However, experience in conducting focus groups is still important.
2 Unbiased and neutral
This specific section for me is one of the most important skills a good moderator should have. There have been several times when I observed focus groups or participated in one and have noticed moderators agreeing or disagreeing with the participants’ responses. Our opinion good or bad, and lack of can easily influence the outcome of the research. For instance, assume I am conducting a focus group related to the perception of consumers regarding a specific type of service XYZ organization offers. During the focus group, a participant says “I really like the service XYZ provides because I feel that I get a good customer service experience compared to ABC company. ABC company is always late in returning my calls but XYZ returns them the same day”. If as a moderator I say for instance… “participant A” I agree I used XYZ services before too and I like that as well, or “that’s so good to hear, I’m glad you feel that way”, etc.. That type of response, agreeing or disagreeing could influence the reactions I get from my participants because they would be tempted to say what I want to hear and not what they want to say. So, this is one of the few situations where moderators and interviewers should not show their agreement or disagreement to the responses but instead thank the participant for their response, which any trained moderator should be able to do it.
3 That awkward silence
Most of us feel awkward when we are in a group setting and there is some silence. However, when it comes to professional moderators or interviewers silence is good. When we ask a question and wait a few seconds for participants or consumers to respond we allow them to not only think about their answers, but because most people do not like silence in a group setting, participants feel the urgency to respond in order to void that silence.
Skilled moderators make participants feel comfortable, welcomed, respected, and treated as valuable participants, thanking them for participating and for their time is important.
Culture means different things to different people, but in this case a moderator who is knowledgeable about the culture of the group is helpful, particularly when working with participants from different countries or ethnic cultures. For instance, often Hispanic participants or consumers tend to use more words to describe things, it is just the way the language is…a more descriptive language in general. So as moderators, we need to accept that.
6 Dress for success
It is important for moderators to dress professionally but without overdoing it. Looking simple yet professional helps participants focus on the communication back and forth, instead of distracting them with accessories, perfume, chewing gum, etc. We want to show focus group participants that they can trust us with their answers and opinions.
7 Dedicated to the field
Another important detail is the level of dedication the moderator or interviewer has to the field. For instance, is it someone who does many other things not related to moderation as a profession? Is the professional involved in any professional organizations related to the field?
8 Research objectives
Moderators need to know what the end goal is for the research, what are we really looking to accomplish and how would the answers be used? Knowing these details would help us better probe questions particularly for abstract or difficult topics.
9 Translated guide
If we are working with a guide translated by someone else, we need to make sure we understand it before we ask questions to participants. A few months ago I was preparing to moderate a focus group in Spanish using a translated guide from English into Spanish. I was familiar with the topic being discussed and the Spanish language, however something in the Spanish guide did not make sense to me, it just did not flow right. After asking to see the English guide (original version), I realized that the translated version was translated directly from the English language but not necessarily adapted or localized to make sense to the Spanish-speaking participants for the focus group. It was more of a direct translation instead of an adapted guide in a culturally sensitive way.
10 Visual help
I believe that when we are conducting focus groups about brands in English it is important to have a visual aid to make sure non-English participants understand what we mean. For instance, if I ask my Spanish-speaking participants, “How familiar are you with Waterloo detergents?" They might have a harder time recognizing the brand name because of the way I pronounce it in English or in Spanish, so showing them what the Waterloo detergent logo looks like might help them make the connection faster, thus providing more accurate and rich information.
Although there are many other characteristics to look for in focus group moderators, this is, based on my experience the best skills focus groups moderators should have particularly when working with multicultural audiences.
For more information or questions about moderating focus groups or about market research, please contact us.
Natalia Infante Caylor, Ph.D. is the owner of Hola Insights and has been conducting qualitative research for nearly ten years, interviewing consumers from different ethnic groups, in English and Spanish across the U.S.