Tag Archives: RIVA

Upcoming Fundamentals of IDI Moderating Course!


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Mindful Moderating (Part 1)

By Jo Ann Hairston

This is a first of a series called Mindful Moderating that will look at different areas of moderating and possibly challenge some beliefs of researchers. This article addresses the portion of the group that encompasses the introduction given by the moderator at the very beginning of the focus group.

As a focus group convenes, the respondents come together with members unsure of what a focus group is and how it differs from a presentation or other form of group activity. Many are uncertain of what to expect and carry a concern about making a mistake in behavior or performance that will leave them embarrassed or even laughed at by the moderator, other respondents, or the client.

Some moderators express concern about doing “all that talking” up front feeling uncomfortable that all eyes are on them as if they were giving a speech. But thinking about the respondents in a mindful way reveals the true purpose of this portion of the group. That purpose is to project a sense of order and planning into the minds of the participants allowing them to more comfortably relinquish control and guidance into the hands of the group leader. This time used by the moderator may feel like too long when weighed against the sheer number of questions in the guide. However, the payoff comes from a greatly increased comfort level of group members, allowing them to get below top-of-mind answers quicker and deeper.

Trite Phrases: a remark, opinion, or idea overused and consequently of little importance; lacking originality or freshness. (Source: The Oxford Pocket of Current English)

In training thousands of moderators over the last 30+ years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe this process many times. There are a number of phrases uttered by moderators that are tossed around and passed along from moderator to moderator without anyone examining the phrase to see if it actually makes sense.

“No right or wrong answers.” Among the thousands of students I have trained over the years, this phrase is quite popular. What is meant by saying this? The moderator seems to be telling the respondents they don’t have to give answers that please the moderator or give factual information like that in a test. But if you look at the phrase carefully you see it tells respondents there are no right answers as well as there are no wrong answers, leaving no answers – so what can they say?

Far better to focus on the fact that participants will be talking about Perceptions, Opinions, Beliefs, and Attitudes (POBAs) and there is no way they can be incorrect in their experience. Following are two mindful, non-trite ways to deliver the information that you want to hear their personal experiences. Try them both and see which one feels best for you:

  • “There are no wrong answers”
  • “There are only right answers”

Resist the urge to combine the two thoughts.

“I didn’t design the things you will be seeing and you can say whatever you like – you can’t offend me.” “I won’t get a raise if you like it or fired if you don’t like it.” Somewhere in the lost archives of focus group history, a moderator once mentioned neither getting a raise nor fired as a way to distance themselves from the concepts being shown later in the group. Since then it has been repeated ad infinitum. And, seriously, do you really want to tell respondents that they cannot offend you? A determined respondent can find something to say that is very offensive to you within minutes. These phrases are not wrong, but they are trite and have been repeated so many times the meaning is lost. It might be better to say something like:

  • “I did not design the ideas that you will be seeing tonight and my job today is to report the full range of your reactions to this idea.”

“I want to hear your honest opinions as you look at and discuss these ideas.” If you have to ask someone to be honest, what is your embedded assumption? You are telling them you believe they will probably lie unless specifically asked not to do so. This does not create a place for candor. What creates candor in a focus group is a sense of security and respect for individual points of view, and regular reinforcement that all points of view are valid. Instead try:

  • “I am expecting to hear a variety of comments during the group. You have each had different experiences that you bring to the conversation, so there is no way I would expect you all to tell me the same things. It is important that your experience and view of things be included in the discussion.”

“Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule.” That sounds like a friendly thing to say, right? Except that this phrase takes people out of the mindset of the group and sends them directly into thoughts about what they should or could be doing instead of being in the focus group. Speaking mindfully, it is better to just thank people for being here today.

“You won’t see yourself on YouTube.” Again, this phrase has come up over the years as a way to say the recording is for research purposes only. However, when it is said, it raises this thought in the minds of the respondents: “Hmmm…wonder why she/he said that…I wasn’t worried about where this recording is going until he/she said that….” Now the respondent is thinking about something else other than the next set of comments or instructions the moderator is giving. It would be wise to indicate something like this:

  •  “This session is being recorded so I can write an accurate report of your insights without using any names.”
  • “The session is recorded so I don’t have to take the time to write notes and I can spend my time being a committed listener and hearing your thoughts about the topic.” 

“Don’t worry about the observers.”Like the phrase, “don’t think of pink elephants,” as soon as you say don’t, it is permission for respondents to think of exactly what you don’t want them to think of! Be straight with respondents regarding the role of observers. There are some phrases that might work:

  • “There are members of my project team behind the mirror who cannot wait for the report; they want to be right here to see how this topic unfolds today.”
  • “There are three roles being played out here today: My role is to ask Q’s, your role is to discuss the topic, look at some items and give your opinions. The observer’s role behind the mirror is to listen to how you see the topic so they make sure to include the voice of the consumer in their decision making.”

This approach honors the observers [also called team members, research colleagues or any other phrase other than “client”], rather than diminishing them or implying the observers are there to keep an eye on the moderator. In addition, it doesn’t put any “don’t phrases” in the room.

Instead of rushing through the introductory comments by rote in the mad dash to get to the “real” topic of discussion, moderators would do well to begin paying attention to what it is they are telling respondents at the start of the group instead of just repeating what others have said. Remember also that continued practice of these phrases make them phrased more naturally and uses less time at the start of the group. Mindfulness at this portion of the group sets the stage for richer, more in-depth discussions.

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Doing Research on Difficult or Sensitive Topics

By Naomi Henderson


While no QRE [Qualitative Research Event] is ever “easy,” there are some topics that are not all that challenging to a seasoned moderator. It is not difficult to present several concepts to respondents and have them pick a winner after discussion. It is not particularly challenging to have respondents review several storyboards and pull out the key themes and the RTBs [Reasons To Believe]. It is very easy to talk about what respondents like and don’t like about their last big ticket purchase.

It is a challenge, however, to talk about terminal illness with a cancer patient or talk with family members about losing a child due to an accident or malpractice. It is wrenching to talk to widows about how they plan to manage death benefit payments 90 days after the funeral of a spouse. As well, it is challenging to talk about gay rights, racism, discrimination, and obesity.

It is hard to be dispassionate when a respondent describes what rage feels like when challenged after presenting food stamps at the cashier and being told “baby diapers don’t quality under the food stamp program.” When the respondent is on the program because she lost her job due to grief when her husband died in Afghanistan, leaving her with twins babies. Even seasoned moderators have concerns when topics like these appear on the horizon.

While the four stages of a QRE [intro, rapport/reconnaissance, in-depth investigation, and closure] are the same, regardless of topic, the way one enters and exits a difficult or sensitive topic is very different. The ground rules vary, the requests for altruistic contributions vary, and how a moderator manages his or her own emotions is very different from a classic QRE on purchase intent, interest in a line extension, or choosing a delivery systems for a new lotion.

It is important to start a QRE on the right foot when the topic is difficult or sensitive and one needs to have mechanisms in place for handling both respondent emotions and the moderator’s own emotions. The interventions or projective techniques have to be chosen with care so they can deliver more than top of mind responses but not so deep that the moderator has entered the “therapy zone.”

There are times when moderators should recuse themselves when they don’t feel they can handle the issue or the emotions in a QRE study and to do so with grace and dignity, giving the client alternatives for how the study might be conducted with another researcher. For example, it would be wise for a female moderator to rescuse herself for a study involving convicted murderers in a maximum security prison on the topic of the additional services that could be offered by the Chaplain’s office.

In summary, the possibility arises that every QRE can be a challenge and a seasoned moderator can often rise to the challenge and obtain key information for client decision-making. However, when the topic is difficult or sensitive, a new set of standards and boundaries come into play and a wise moderator knows if they are up to task when the bar is raised.

I will be presenting a webinar on this topic on September 12, 2014. With years of experience moderating difficult and sensitive topics, I am excited for this opportunity to share my own tools and tips for other moderators. If you are interested, please visit our website for more information or email training@rivainc.com.

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Long Live Focus Groups!

By Naomi Henderson


Last week I read with some interest a Research Access article titled, Are Focus Groups an Endangered Species?” As a seasoned, long time moderator, (having led more than 6,000 focus groups since 1978), a trainer of moderators, and an author, I am obviously quite alarmed at the idea that focus groups should be considered a dinosaur or endangered species.

I will wholeheartedly agree that all focus groups don’t work – they can go wrong for a number of reasons and they can be misused by observers. However, every industry has some flukes; the car industry continues to make cars even though some cars are lemons. They don’t stop making cars because some of them are not working as designed.

The first focus groups were held in America in 1937. In the three-quarters of a century since those first groups, focus groups have undergone a number of transformations as a research methodology as outlined in the chart below:

Chart for 5-28-14


The qualitative research game changed a lot over the last seven decades and with the advent of additional technologies, even more adaptations will continue to be made in the qualitative arena.

Every now and then an article comes out in the press entitled: “Is God Dead?” and it goes on to report issues around the moral decay in the world. Those articles seldom report the growth of church membership in times of crisis, the role that religion plays in handling stress, or how religion provides millions with a moral center to face the challenges of a modern world. In the same way, one should be careful in reading a report on the “death of focus groups” as there is always another side to every story. I believe focus groups are, in fact, thriving and will continue to be applied to new situations over the coming years.

Many arguments against focus groups result from a misunderstanding of the limits of focus group qualitative research.

The argument of Inherent bias: I completely agree that there exists a bias in focus groups and that respondents may sway each other. But a skilled moderator knows how to set a context for avoiding bias. Many believe that the purpose of a focus group is to reach consensus…wrong, on every count. Focus groups with 8 participants, handled correctly, can achieve eight different points of view! There is never a reason to reach consensus in a focus group.

The very nature of focus groups is their subjective biases: convenience samples, paid respondents, and a fixed line of questions. So you may wonder, what’s the point? Because what counts in life, cannot be counted. Try to scale or measure love, patriotism, or brand loyalty. Try to count up a tally of what it means to own a dog or keep a Ford Mustang for 40 years. What counts, cannot be quantified and hearing that information trumps any biases that might be present.

The argument of Small sample sizes: There is never a reason to project the findings of 24, 36, or 48 people in focus groups to a universe and make a quantitative summary. The whole point of focus groups is to understand language, motivators, drivers, perceptions, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes which then can go into the development of quantitative surveys where projections can be made.

To call “small sample sizes” a fault of focus groups is to misunderstand the role of qualitative research. Quantitative research asks the questions, qualitative research questions the answers and provides insights that help decision-makers see the whole picture. Any client that would make a marketing decision based on 30 people is delusional and any moderator who supports that thinking is misguided at best and harmful at worst. Qualitative and quantitative research are like two sides of a hand. The quant is the back where the bones and sinews can be easily seen. The soft palm is qual research that possesses the ability to hold something with care. Both are critical to the whole picture of market research.

The argument of Time consuming and expensive to do it right. Yes, qualitative research takes time and is expensive – I have no argument with that premise. I also know that some of the finer things in life take time and cost a lot of money. A good example is aged whiskey. Moonshine can be made in one day and aged one night. But a good single malt scotch, aged 12 years or more, is smooth and satisfying. A lump of coal burns fast and hot, but that same lump pressed under tons of earth for centuries will turn into a diamond and is priceless. Qualitative research takes time but when you know how the target market thinks, you can sell more products and services. In the long run, a little more time with consumers at the front end of a process can send huge dividends to the bottom line.


Naomi writes more about her experiences as a Master Moderator in her book, Secrets of a Master Moderator.

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Notes from the Director: The Benefit of a Trained In-house Kid and Teen Moderator

RIVA Director, Amber Tedesco, shares from her experiences as a project manager and director of a successful qualitative research company. 

We talk about how kids are our future all the time. The role of kids/teens has changed over the past decade and they have become the partial decision-maker in a lot of households.   Since kids/teens interact with so much – consumer goods, electronics, automobiles, almost everything adults do – it’s a good idea for companies to make sure they get their view point in their marketing research.

If you’ve ever tried to interview a kid/teen you know it’s not the same as interviewing adults. As Pam Goldfarb Liss mentioned in her blog article, the group size and length are different, questions are phrased differently, sessions are timed differently, even the food you serve isn’t the same.

As the director of RIVA, I have seen the benefits of having an in-house person trained to conduct kid/teen qualitative research sessions for their company.   There are those instances when the moderator that was hired for the work becomes ill last minute or has an issue which doesn’t allow them to conduct the sessions. By having an in-house person trained they could step in if needed and are able to work with outside moderators more effectively on the research design.

Since 2012 RIVA has offered a Kid/Teen moderating course that speaks directly to the differences moderators face and how to deal with those changes in qualitative research sessions.  This class is very small – only 4 to a class.  Our upcoming July 9-11, 2014 class has 2 open seats.  Registration is first come/first serve.

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From the Archives: Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

On Thursdays, we re-post an article from our archives. Good moderating principles never go out of style. 

Helping Respondents Communicate Feelings and Emotions versus Rational Answers

By Naomi Henderson

Originally Posted: 31 December 2012

Recently I’ve been thinking about principles related to the questions that I ask of respondents in focus groups.  I know to honor these rules:

  1. Write short questions
  2. Keep probes simple , direct, and relevant to what has been said
  3. Avoid leading questions

I’ve been focusing on asking the best question to get the data that my client needs for decision-making.  One of the areas that continues to be a challenge for me is what data I obtain when I ask each of these questions:

  1. What do you think of _____________________?
  2. What are your feelings about  _______________?

I known when I ask the first question, I’m looking for a rational response based on some “thought pattern” in the minds of respondents.  For example:

Q:  What do you think of the idea of a Starbucks that is only a tea salon?  [No coffee to be served.]

A:  I think that is a good idea for tea drinkers – they will think that is cool.

 A.  I think it won’t fly as a retail store, because there are so many more coffee drinkers than tea drinkers and you can already get a good cup of tea at a Starbucks.

 A.   I think that idea may work better in England than in the US.

 All the above are rational answers, based on a little bit of “thinking” about the question that was posed.  Probing  into any of the answers will help to get below “top-of-mind” responses from their original answers.

 However, when the question is phrased with the word “feelings”, answers don’t always come out as “emotions.”

Q: What are your feelings about Starbucks opening a tea only shop? [No coffee to be served.]

A.  I think that might work – there are more tea drinkers these days.

A: That might not work for Starbucks – they have an image as a “coffee place” —  and they have worked hard to set a certain standard in the coffee world.

A. I feel it is a poor idea for the US….maybe it would work in England.

Notice in the second set of questions about Starbucks Tea Salon when respondents were asked what they felt about the idea:  One person said “I think” and another gave a rational response rather than an emotional one and the final person used the word “feel” but the response was really what he/she was thinking.

Insight:  Simply adding the word “feel” to a question may not always lead to an emotion being expressed.  I’ve noticed that respondents have no trouble telling you what they think, but they don’t do such a good job telling you what they feel, just based on having that word in the question.

Best Practice: Before I write questions in this category, I ask myself:  “What do I want to know…their thinking and rational process or their emotions?”  

When the answer is the former:  I have no problem with a simple question that starts with “What are your thoughts about…….?”

However, when I want emotions I set up the category a bit more and then ask for emotions specifically.



Set Them Up: In a moment, I’ll be asking you some question’s that talk about feelings or emotions. Before I start with those questions tell me some emotions that anyone can experience in the course of a day; from rising in the morning to getting to work – working with colleagues or folks out in the world – getting back home, dealing with family members. I have ten fingers…give me some emotions that come to mind.”

Respondents often give these emotions:   anger, fear, joy, sadness, depression, excitement, love, panic, rage, lust, disgust, frustrated, etc.

Task: I then pick 2-3 of the common answers and ask:  “Where in your body, does that emotion often reside?”  I often pick anger and love and they typically say: “My stomach or my heart” as answers.

Next Step: At this point I then say:  “Great, you have the emotions down, now use what we just did to help get to the emotions that arise when I ask or show you _______________.”

Probing: Then I pose the questions related to feelings/emotions and they might sound like this:

1. What feelings/emotions do you associate with going to a car showroom and looking at different cars in which you have an interest in purchasing?

2. What is the first emotion/feeling that comes up when a salesman says: “We don’t carry that product in this hardware store.”

3. Tell me what you feel like inside when a boss says – “Your work is not up to our standards.”

Net Results: Once respondents have had a chance to see how easy it is to categorize feelings/emotions, they can then talk about those two elements quickly and allow the moderator to get below top-of-mind answers and avoid the risk to default back to “rational” answers.

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Congratulations to our new Master Moderators!

by Naomi Henderson

Our industry is one in which competence, let alone expertise, is difficult to measure.  Self-declared moderators with little or no training print business cards and go off to find clients. They jump feet first into the world of qualitative research without having to prove themselves or gain experience in the intensely difficult task of moderating qualitative events.

This past week, four individuals completed RIVA’s rigorous Master Moderator Program. These men and women have completed hours of qualitative research for a variety of client categories, attended many RIVA training courses, and passed a practicum and written test. These students have applied themselves to the art and science of moderating, seeking to rise above the status quo and prove themselves as qualified Master Moderators.

We at RIVA are immensely proud of our new Master Moderators: Mark Howell, Sharon Laukhuff, Miguel Martinez-Baco, and Laurie Quercioli.  They have realized that a master is created, not born and have risen to the challenge of mastery.


RIVA Staff and the New Master Moderators

RIVA Staff and the New Master Moderators