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THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK… a moderator’s experience of returning to offline focus groups

For the first time in four months, our London (Wimbledon) based viewing facility The Qualitative Lab, threw open our doors this week (and all of our windows!) and welcomed real life ‘in the flesh’ respondents to mini groups. How did it feel to be back, and how different did it feel from moderating pre-Covid? Plus Four’s Cara Allan gives a moderator’s perspective…

Having been very much a hands-on qual researcher for more than 15 years, this has been the longest period I have gone without moderating in-person. Pre-Covid I would moderate a mix of both online and offline - but with the vast majority being traditional in-person focus groups. As was the case for all qual researchers, this shifted to exclusively online the moment that lockdown was announced. I swapped whizzing around the country holding groups in a variety of venues and late night motorway journeys home (with a head full of findings and quotes for the report writing!), for the virtual world of Zoom, and moderating groups/depths from my dining room table.

During this time I’ve ‘attended’ many virtual get-togethers for researchers held by the likes of AQR, MRS and Greenbook, where the question always came back to whether we would (want to) ever get back to holding offline research, and if we did how would it work?

As the official lockdown easing started, The Qualitative Lab was working together with the MRS and other viewing facilities to discuss measures for re-opening, and a huge amount of work was going on behind the scenes to make this happen - despite not knowing for sure what the demand would be. So, I was excited when a request for groups to be held in a facility arrived in my in-box… I must admit to doing a little happy dance at this point!

Of course, those reading this may have questions about the logistics and safety measures, but I knew The Qualitative Lab had all of these covered… with a comprehensive list of safety measures, a Health & Travel screener provided to recruiters and detailed ‘Arrival Instructions’ for all visitors. After taking advantage of the free on-site parking, my arrival saw copious amounts of hand sanitiser, a temperature check, and the issuing of a clear face visor. All respondents arrived and they took the same checks in their stride.

The furniture in the studio room had been re-arranged to accommodate respondents and myself as the moderator, with subtle safe-distance tape placed on the floor in front of each respondent chair, acting both as a reminder and reassurance. Although I am biased, the studio room at The Qualitative Lab has always been one of my favourites to moderate in as it is so light and airy… the open window and open door for extra ventilation only added to this. It helps that there is only one studio, so we had the facility to ourselves. On this occasion clients did not view, but the room had been set-up to make this possible and remote viewing was offered.

As a moderator – even in normal times - we work hard to put respondents at ease as we kick-off a group - a one-way mirror can be both intimidating and entertaining in equal measure. I wondered if the addition of wearing face shields would affect this, but the reality was that it was no different. Once we got underway with a light-hearted “well don’t we look daft”, it was obvious the clear visors did not create a barrier to communication. We heard each other clearly, we saw facial expressions, we read body language clues, we looked at the stimulus on the TV screen with no problems… we were “in it” together. The visors were soon forgotten … the point where I realised just how forgotten they were, was when a respondent went to take a sip of their drink through their visor (it did make all of us giggle!). I used this as my warm-up to the next group!

The respondents helped themselves to sanitised cans of drink and individually packed biscuits … I must admit (please tell me I’m not alone in this?), it was good not to have all the other naughty food around to hoover up in the short breaks that us moderators like to call ‘dinner’.

The respondents were all upbeat as they left, and visitor questionnaire feedback suggests the measures The Qualitative Lab has in place offered significant reassurance, both to attend in the first place, but also going through the safety checks upon arrival. Exactly the right balance was struck … reassuring respondents whilst not scaring them away.

From a moderator’s perspective, I found the main challenges were surprisingly not related to PPE or safe distancing – but more that I had forgotten how tiring keeping a conversation flowing for 4 hours can be (2 back-to-back groups)! Even when the group start positively questioning one another (something I always love to see), it reminded me that it’s definitely a honed skill to remain alert and engaged throughout.

I have enjoyed moderating online qual in this period, but it does not bring with it the same energy or group interaction. I am not convinced these are either/or approaches, but rather serving somewhat different purposes.

Of course, offline groups are not right for all topics or all audiences right now, but it’s been great to experience first-hand that they definitely continue to have a place, and it was exhilarating to return both to moderating in-person and to The Qualitative Lab.

For details of moderation services from Plus4, contact Cara Allan:

For facility hire enquiries, contact The Qualitative Lab : or call 020 8254 4444.



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