Deepening the Research Practice: Strategies to Upskill and the Moderator's Rubric

Posted by Mitra Martin on May 21, 2019

As UX researchers, we have the opportunity to facilitate interactions that are transformative on many levels. What we learn in these human-to-human interactions can lead to changes that have ripple effects on the products we use, creating experiences that touch millions of lives. To maximize our opportunity to create positive change, we need to stay at the growing edge of the art of interviewing our users.

We all remember being a new researcher, muddling through a research session awkwardly, ticking off a list of questions one by one. We’ve all come a long way. As seasoned professionals with scores of studies under our belts, it can be harder to access that next, deeper level of moderation skills. It’s hard to see our own blind spots and get useful feedback on our own work in the midst of a packed research schedule.

But, it’s worth it to make the effort. When we experience and create real flow in the interview process, the quality of our insights improve, and, beyond this, our work comes alive, becoming joyful and meaningful. Hidden epiphanies pop out of unexpected places. We tune in to tiny nuances, and skillfully turn them into golden opportunities to discover new ways of seeing and serving users.

This kind of expert-level moderation requires many hours of what’s called “deliberate practice” - practice with meaningful, in-the-moment feedback. How can we get this kind of feedback on our work as interviewers in a rigorous and ongoing way?

Strategies for upskilling as a moderator

Deliberate practice can help you develop your technique and skillset in many aspects of your life, not just research. By applying these principles to my work, I access meaningful feedback that helps me continually grow as a qualitative interviewer. Here are a few strategies I’ve explored — I hope you find that they deepen your ability to generate powerful insights that drive human-centered design, and help make your research sessions rich and enjoyable experiences for both you and your participant.

man thinkingConduct a self-assessment

Start by reflecting on your own experiences. Consider how you feel before, during, and after sessions, and explore what might be behind that. Try watching videos of your work and notice what stands out to you. It can be fascinating to watch an entire conversation from start to finish; you’re likely to discover things you’d never realized about your work. It can also be great to skip around your video archive and watch parts of different interviews to get an overall sense of yourself as an interviewer and see any changes over time Be sure to watch sessions you felt good about, as well as those you didn’t feel so good about. Identify what you see as your strengths, as well as how you could grow.

Self-assessment can be illuminating and can be done anytime and anywhere. It’s something you may even naturally find yourself doing as part of developing presentations for stakeholders. But, as busy researchers, it can also be easy to put off, and you might overlook blind spots. I find self-assessment works best in conjunction with another strategy.

Find a research buddy

Ask a fellow researcher on your team to meet with you regularly for mutual upskilling. Share what’s come up for you in your own self-assessment process, ask for input on areas where you’d like to grow, and make yourself available to listen to your buddy’s self-assessments too.

With your buddy, carry out mock interviews for upcoming projects and ask for feedback on your moderating skills — and vice versa. You might also invite your buddy to watch a research session to get real-world, targeted feedback — and offer to do the same for her.

Working with a peer is an easy and fun way to get a fresh perspective your practice, and it helps you both stay more accountable to your upskilling goals. It’s a great way to build thoughtful relationships with colleagues, and ultimately take the quality of your moderating to a deeper level. But working with a buddy is also subject to your peer’s availability. To ensure you’re getting consistent feedback, you might benefit from building a small upskilling team.

group of people watching presenterBuild an upskilling team

Convene a group of three or four colleagues open to giving and receiving feedback on their work. Create a private channel via email or Slack for sharing session videos and asking for input. If you’re really looking for targeted feedback, share specific time-stamped sections for them to review. That way, you get focused observations and can make the task less daunting and time-consuming for your colleagues. Schedule meetings focused on specific aspects of moderating, such as rapport-building, improvisation, or time-management, where each person can share their strategies and challenges.

But, why have a small group rather than just one peer? Ensuring you have more than just one buddy creates just enough redundancy so that discussion is more likely to happen, even if one person is unavailable on a given day. A team gives you access to a richer range of perspectives, so feedback is often more robust and nuanced, and it’s more likely to click in your work. And if your team works on related products, it can even support the development of horizontal insights.

computer screen and keyboardHold an online workshop

It’s easier than you might think to carry out online workshops that leverage the energy and focus of a large research team, while encouraging the intimacy of one-on-one conversations that allow for vulnerability and honest sharing. Through video conferencing tools like Zoom, you can set the stage for upskilling with your team as a whole, and then invite participants into breakout rooms where each participant shares a personal self-assessment of their moderating, identifying areas of strength and areas to grow, and asking for input.

This kind of workshop can play an important role in an organizational shift towards a feedback-driven culture, by normalizing giving and receiving feedback company-wide. Although a single workshop is unlikely to create immediate changes, at AnswerLab, we find this strategy sparks reflection and goal-setting across our research team.

Attend an in-person workshop

Look for - or create! - opportunities like the “Don’t Leave Data on the Table” workshop created by Marianne Berkovich, Elizabeth Baylor, and Beverly Freeman, or any upskilling workshop designed to tap into peer-to-peer feedback. This is a great way to meet more UX professionals and learn about new processes and ways of thinking.

Although it can be difficult to find redacted or anonymized video footage of your research that can be shared publicly in a workshop format, we love these ladies’ idea of using footage from pro-bono social impact work!

The importance of culture

Our cultures have a big impact on our openness to feedback. A feedback-driven culture is one where everyone, regardless of seniority, actively and continuously solicits feedback both formally and informally, and changes what they do based on what they learn. When those in senior roles show humility and openness to feedback, this has a ripple effect on everyone’s openness to continuous learning.

Going a step further, in a feedback-oriented company culture, creating time and space for everyone to come together in an intentional manner to be open and vulnerable about their work must be prioritized.

A simple way to gently introduce feedback into your company is to incorporate it into the natural cadence of research, making it part of the process. For example, after your first research session, build a feedback loop into your team debrief. Consider opening questions such as:

“Do any of the researchers here have feedback on how I carried out that interview? I felt good about how I managed the time, but I felt something was missing in terms of really creating rapport; she didn’t seem to really open up about why she avoided those kinds of experiences. Thoughts?”

The AnswerLab UX Research Moderator’s Rubric

As you and your peers take your moderating to the next level, it’s helpful to have a framework to focus feedback, making it more likely to have productive, valuable conversations.

At AnswerLab, we’ve developed a rubric as a tool for upskilling your research practice that articulates distinct techniques of the research practice and outlines what skill looks like at different levels of accomplishment. This is a valuable companion in self-directed, peer-driven, and group-based professional development work.

To discover where you might have an opportunity to deepen your moderating practice, and spark new kinds of upskilling conversations with your colleagues or managers, download the AnswerLab UX Research Moderator’s Rubric.

Download the rubric

Written by

Mitra Martin

Mitra Martin is a UX Researcher at AnswerLab where she leads research to help fortune 500 clients identify and prioritize insights that improve their business results.

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