skills for moderating in-depth interviews and focus groups

Whether you’re a UX researcher conducting generative and evaluative research, or you’re a market researcher working on branding and product studies, in-depth interviews and focus groups are core methodologies used across all qualitative disciplines. As a researcher, these are fundamental study-types that you’ll want to have mastery in.

However, even though both require moderating, the specific skillsets needed are actually quite different. The good news, is that with some solid training – and – most importantly – practice and coaching, you’ll be able to master both practices. Let’s explore some key differences.

In-depth interviews: What moderator skills are needed?

In-depth interviews are done with just one individual. These are quite common in usability testing, but they’re also essential in all types of market research. For example, when discussing sensitive topics, or when the research study goal is to understand the behavior of an individual, versus a group. In-depth interviews can be done online, via the phone, or in-person. They typically last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.

The first core skill in in-depth interviewing is to have the study goals and questions set up correctly. This is where knowing how to write a discussion guide becomes so essential. Some general rules of thumb are that questions should flow from general to specific, and the job of the moderator is to set up a topic and allow the participant to fill in their ideas, associations, and opinions. Unlike journalists and lawyers, moderators need to be trained in how to set up questions that are non-leading.

Typically discussion guides have 3-5 sections, with the topics building on each other in their specificity. The idea is to step into the participants’ world and not plant ideas or themes into the discussion until the participant first brings them up.

Some essential skills needed for in-depth interviews are:

  • The ability to establish rapport and trust with the participant
  • Knowing how to ask questions that are not leading and that don’t put themes into the discussion too early: For example, avoiding going back and forth in time, and introducing key themes before the participant first comes up with the ideas
  • Knowing how to prompt and probe to get specifics when participants hint at ideas or give incomplete responses
  • Keeping a close tab on timing and knowing how to ensure the essential questions are thoroughly answered without the participant getting off track
  • Knowing when to let participants go down tangents and when to direct them back
  • Knowing how to stay neutral and objective so that the participants’ story unfolds naturally (and so the study can be done blindly, if it’s a blind study)
  • Being on the lookout for common cognitive biases (both from the moderator and participant)
  • If using visuals or tasks (such as in user experience research), knowing when to introduce the visuals and how to set up the exercises in ways that the participant organically goes through the process
  • Knowing how to have empathy and build trust as the discussion becomes more specific
  • Understanding how to lead difficult interviews: Either because of the subject matter, or with participants who are not talkative, distracted, or over-talk on topics not relevant to the study’s goals

Whew! That’s a lot, right? Fortunately, with the right training and coaching, qualitative researchers can master these skills.

Let’s next explore some of the key skills needed when moderating focus groups.

Focus groups: What moderator skills are needed?

Focus groups are discussions held with a group of people (at InterQ Learning Labs, we max out our discussions with 6 participants) and led by a moderator. As you can imagine, the dynamic is quite different with a room of people versus an individual. And this is really where the skills become quite different: Knowing how to manage group dynamics is essential when moderating focus groups. Focus groups are fantastic when the study is attempting to pinpoint how groups make decisions, versus individuals (for example, work-cohorts, friend groups, or ideas that are debated socially). They are also a wonderful tool when used very early in the product development process: for example, ideation of a new product, brainstorming brand identities, or co-creating new processes or services.

Here are some essential skills focus group moderators need to have:

  • The ability to establish rapport and trust with a group
  • Knowing how to build a discussion guide. Similar to a discussion guide for an in-depth interview, focus group guides are typically limited to 3-5 topics, but there will be less questions since there are more people to answer
  • Knowing how to ask non-leading questions and when to prompt/probe
  • Knowing how to manage group dynamics: How to ensure some participants don’t control the room, learning how to get shyer participants to talk, and creating an environment where everyone feels confident participating, without fear of judgement
  • A solid grasp on projective techniques and individual exercises that are meant to dive into the subconscious
  • Knowing how to set up questions without group bias: Having participants write down responses first, using worksheets, and knowing when to ask the group versus when to get individual responses first
  • Keeping close track of time so that all the topics are covered
  • How to keep the core research questions top of mind – knowing how to lead the group back from tangents
  • Knowing how to debrief with the client and use a backroom facilitator to flush out the core ideas during the group sessions

As you can see, moderating in-depth interviews versus groups requires very different skillsets, but moderators who are well-versed in individual interviews will already know some of the fundamentals that are also used in group moderating. The idea with groups is to be able to build on the core skills from individual interviews and layer in group dynamics and understand the key things to be on the lookout for so that groups have a successful outcome.

If you want to refine and perfect your moderating skills – for both groups and individuals, check out our Everything in Moderation course >