Objectivity of the Moderator

In qualitative research, the moderator can easily influence depth interview of focus groups respondents’ thoughts and opinions. Because the moderator is an authoritative figure inside a focus group, participants may tend to answer what they think the moderator wants to hear.

Take the following example:

We observed a business strategist hired by a financial institution to run a series of focus group in which participants were invited to discuss their experience in using the company’s Internet banking services. During the session, the moderator projected his own attitudes towards the service through his responses to the participant’s comments with agreeable camaraderie and statements such as “true, I tried that too, it’s really bad”. This provided a hint to participants in which type of answers would create more positive reactions. Further reinforcing their need to please, most of the focus group participants were graduate students who had attended one the moderator’s lectures.

Instead of a reflection of the participants’ own thought the results reflected mostly the moderator’s opinions. It is the moderator’s projected opinion that influenced participants and misled the results. Not to mention the selection of the participants itself.

The moderator must be aware of the influence he or she has on the respondent’s answers, and know how to project complete objectivity at all times. Following are the main factors that moderators must observe not to influence participants. While mostly about focus groups, these factors are also true for depth interviews.

Verbal Cues

Introduction Script

Objectivity must first be established before actually beginning a focus group session. The introduction script in which the moderator states the topic and objectives of the study must be worded carefully to avoid suggesting any desired outcome of the research. Among other points, the introduction script should stress that there are no right or wrong answers and that all opinions are welcome.

Wording of Questions

As mentioned in the previous article, the wording of questions and probes and even the order in which they come up will strongly influence the answers provided. Questions must be asked in such a way that it does not hint on the answer. For example, “How bad is your experience with this company’s customer service hotline?” clearly states that the experience is expected to be bad, and will result in influencing more negative responses from participants even if they had not previously considered their experience negative. Probably starting right away with a question about the hotline suggests that there was something wrong in the first place… But should such a specific question be brought up, “Describe your experience in calling this company’s customer service hotline” would provide more objective answers.

Reactions to the answers can tell a lot about the moderator’s attitude. The moderator should not acquiesce or dismiss an answer, regardless of the opinion of the participant. Objective responses such as “Interesting… Anything else?..”, or “Ok, noted” should be used instead of answers that suggest agreement or disagreement such as “yeah, true”, “maybe”, or even an expression of surprise.

Nonverbal Cues

While the moderator must be skilled in observing and interpreting participants’ nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, hand movements, etc., he or she must be aware of his or her own nonverbal cues and how they can be perceived by participants.

Nonverbal cues can be used to encourage a participant to continue on a discussion, or even to discourage a participant who is getting off course. But they can also influence the participants in saying something else than what they really think.

Objectivity Toward the Outcome

Maintaining objectivity and openness towards research is the moderators’ professional obligation. But moderators that have vested interest in the outcome of a research will have difficulty maintaining objectivity and may, consciously or not, skew the outcome of a research. Often internal researchers will be too close to the research and have difficulty maintaining objectivity. But it may also happen with external moderators.

The moderator in the above example may have had an idea of the company’s desired outcome, which may have caused him, in a desire to please his clients, to skew the results towards what they wanted to hear. This practice provides no real value to the company as a whole.

Considering the influence moderators have on respondents, companies genuinely interested in getting objective results should ensure the moderator is not only skilled in interviewing techniques, but that he or she will engage into research with complete objectivity, whether he or she is an internal or an external researcher.

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David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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