Qualitative Interviewing: The Art and Science of Being a Moderator

One of the most rewarding aspects of the moderator’s job is that you get to rummage around in many different worlds and speak to so many highly knowledgeable people.

On any given day you might interview a psychiatrist in Swindon about schizophrenia in the morning, a patient in Peterborough about pressure ulcers in the afternoon and a Chief Executive in Chicago about enterprise software, the same evening.

But that sheer variety makes for a major challenge in trying to get our heads around all the technical details so that we don’t sound like complete fools.

The well-known saying, “jack of all trades, master of none,” was surely first used to describe a market researcher.

But how much knowledge do we need? At a very basic level, we need to assimilate enough in order to understand the objectives of the project. Typically that process begins with a briefing lasting an hour or so, in which the client does their best to bring us up to speed on what is often a highly complex subject. Often we’ll back that up with some further research on the web, to understand the wider context, but usually, that’s the full extent of our pre-match warm up.

You could argue that a moderator doesn’t need to know anything, as long as they stick to the script. But qualitative interviewing is not a robotic process. Obviously, we’re never going to be experts, but we do need to know enough to understand if we are getting the answers that the client needs, and to be able to probe for more, if not.

Quite often it’s a case of taking that basic knowledge and, for the rest, ‘faking it till you make it’. In medicine and technology interviews, especially, respondents will often reel off whole sentences of
incomprehensible jargon. To which the savvy moderator simply responds with a knowing nod, even though he is none the wiser, but somehow also knowing that the question has been answered and
that the client will know what’s been said, even if he doesn’t.

The last thing we want is for respondents to dumb down their answers and if we asked for an explanation of every new acronym, the interview might never end.

Ultimately, qualitative interviewing is the place where art meets science; the seasoned moderator’s art skillfully employed to capture the respondent’s science. It’s a thin line to walk, but highly satisfying when you get it right.

On reflection, perhaps we should change that saying to “Jack of many trades but master of one.”