Book Review - The Moderator’s Survival Guide

As I am doing a lot more research with users now, I asked for The Moderator’s Survival Guide by Donna Tedesco and Fiona Tranquada for Christmas.

Anyone who does anything with members of the public will know that they are unpredictable, so anything that can help you work out how to deal with odd situations has got to be useful.

Photo of the book on a table
The Moderator’s Survival Guide by Donna Tedesco and Fiona Tranquada

The book is split in to sections so you do not have to read it end to end, but it is useful to do this as you will not have time when a situation comes up to check in the book to see what you should do.

The first section gives you an overview of different moderating styles which you might need to adopt depending on the situation, along with six steps for handling situations in general. They also offer some patterns that can be combined depending on the issue, for instance redirecting or reassuring the participant.

It then gets into some focused ‘if this happens, try this’ examples.

For instance they talk through what to do if there is an earthquake or fire alarm, and while we might not experience earthquakes in the UK, fire alarms are an issue and something I have already experienced while supporting a test. Other examples include drunk or stoned participants, participants who turn up late, or not at all, technical issues with your equipment, participants who think it is a job interview and participants who are reluctant to say anything bad about the product, amongst others.

Scattered throughout the book are ‘survival stories’ from researchers who have had to deal with some of these issues, which helps to remind you that this is not just a technical handbook but very much about dealing with real people.

It also deals with the fact that sometimes it is not the participants that are the issue but your stakeholders or observers, so there is some useful guidance in this area too.

Reading this book I spotted many things that I had either experienced myself or had heard my colleagues talk about, so it was interesting to compare what we did with their suggestions.

While it is written from an American standpoint and based mostly on usability testing there is still a lot of useful guidance in this book and I think that if you are running sessions of any kind with participants this is a useful read.

I hope that I will not have to put much of it into practice, however I believe in being prepared and this book has certainly given me a better idea of what to do in most circumstances, including a few that I had not even considered.