From the desk of Alice Morgan
My husband owns a barbecue restaurant. When people find this out, a spirited and lengthy discussion of barbecue ensues. What sauce? (He makes five – all from scratch.) Dry rub, or no? (Mostly dry, but we offer wet and dry ribs.) What wood is used on the smoker? (Hickory.) It goes on and on.
When people find out that I moderate focus groups, or (more simply put) interview people, they politely say “Oh, how interesting.” An awkward silence ensues. And I understand why. “Interviewing” is an abstraction. It is hard for people to understand who I interview, why I interview, and in what context the interview occurs. So in this blog post I would like to explain to you, humble reader, what we moderators do, and what is so wonderful about it.
There but for the grace of God go I. We all live in a bubble, whether it be a city, a suburb, or a rural community. In my case, I live in Ann Arbor Michigan, a Midwestern college town. It is a diverse, highly educated, happily sports-obsessed place. Moderating gets me out of my bubble, as I am constantly reminded that there’s a whole world out there of people different than me and my townsfolk. Last year I worked on a project in which I interviewed convenience store employees. Most convenience store employees are not highly educated. Most are just getting by. But many of these clerks, with high school educations at best, provided razor-sharp feedback. The takeaway was crystal clear: what separates people in my community from the convenience store workers I interviewed is opportunity.
Never a dull moment. There is no one way to interview people. Lots of people are successful at it – introverts, extroverts, the whole shebang. What is needed is creativity, and the ability to turn on a dime. We all get there differently. In several instances I have had people start crying as they recounted painful experiences (one was about a horrific experience with a doctor, one was about on-the-job stress). I needed to lighten the mood – fast. And I did. Moderating a group is like conducting. We bring out taciturn, and subdue the loquacious. It is challenging. No two groups are ever the same. This is a job that keeps you on your toes.
All walks of life. There are many jobs in which people are exposed to wide swath of society, but often that exposure is fairly brief. Interviewing people is intense. Moderators get to know people on a profound, personal level. I have interviewed CEOs. I have interviewed plumbers. I have interviewed Moms. During a recent project about car dealerships a participant and I were at a Jeep dealership in Yonkers for 3 ½ hours (during which he actually bought a car). Not to sound too grandiose about it, but moderating is about the human condition.
No job is perfect. The problem with moderating is that moderators spend quite a lot of time, well, not moderating. There is the process of figuring out who to interview, and how (AKA study design). There is the process of determining what to ask (AKA crafting the discussion guide). And there is the process of analyzing what people said and what it all means (AKA writing the report). But the essence of moderating, interviewing people alone or in groups about topics of interest to my clients, is fantastic. And that is what keeps me – and my peers – still crazy about qualitative after all these years.