Moderating the Back Room
A strategic tool for experience researchers
It was the end of a long day of usability sessions. We were at a facility and peanut butter cup wrappers and notes on yellow pads cluttered the room. We all agreed it had been a productive day of research. We had learned a lot. I waved goodbye to the designers and told them I’d be working on the research report while they cranked out a few preliminary designs based on the feedback.
About a week later when we first prepped for our client meeting, I realized my worst fear as a researcher had come true. Where I had seen major foundational issues within our design strategy, the designers had seen validation in the approach. They had come away with completely different findings than I had. It was then that I became a passionate activist for the back room. While logistically it may be a viewing station, the back room can be an important tool for uniting stakeholders and ensuring impactful research.
The back room is where the story is first told
Many qualitative studies have a “back room.” The most obvious and common goal of this room is to give stakeholders a chance to observe the research. Maybe it’s an empty conference room with live streaming from a laptop or maybe it’s in a facility with stadium seating and a one-way mirror. Whether the researcher actively moderates the observers or not, the back room is where the story is first told. To successfully moderate the back room is to create a space where stakeholders not only view the research but also become a part of its analysis.
While logistically it may be a viewing station, the back room can be an important tool for uniting stakeholders and ensuring impactful research.
When the researcher fails to moderate interpretations, stakeholders may latch onto a single observation that is unrepresentative of overall findings; they may start working on designs that don’t align with the research; they may be surprised by the final research results; and the researcher may miss out on rich and varied perspectives that could help shape findings and recommendations. It is the researcher’s job to ensure all interested parties are on the same page and prevent misalignment with any observations and findings.
Align stakeholders with findings as early as possible
The key to unifying research findings with stakeholder interpretations is to convert the back room into an ongoing synthesis venue. To do so, here are a few tips:
Create a back room
If you don’t have access to an official observation room, have no fear. A back room can be as simple as an empty conference room or even a table where observers congregate. All you need is a dedicated space and the ability to view the research (e.g. streaming from a laptop).
Invite your stakeholders to attend in person
Although some circumstances call for remote viewing, there is no better way to unite over findings than being together in the same room. It may be difficult to convince overbooked colleagues to attend in person, but coupling just one session with a mini-debrief often leaves stakeholders hungry for more.
Start the day by outlining 3–5 main questions
This step is essential. Before the first session starts, define three to five questions that are crucial to answer. Write them where any observer can easily view them. My personal preference is to do this on a whiteboard in a table format, with questions representing columns and participants’ names attached to rows. If a white board isn’t available, try using a shared document.
To successfully moderate the back room is to create a space where stakeholders not only view the research but also become a part of its analysis.
Hold a mini-debrief after each session
Schedule a solid break between each session, no shorter than 15 minutes. During this time, ask your observers to help answer each of the main questions based on the most recent participant. As the day goes on, each participant’s findings will be there for the team to reference. Filling out this table after each session will help to 1) interpret any behavior as an outlier or part of a trend, 2) easily catch anyone up on the day’s learnings thus far, and 3) serve as an invaluable tool for synthesizing the overall takeaways.
Hold an EOD debrief with the team to go through your findings
To ensure that everyone leaves with a single narrative, debrief at the end of the day. I like to send out a separate meeting invitation to the same stakeholders that were invited to observe. Bringing everyone together for a recap not only offers a chance to catch up anyone who missed the sessions, but it also provides an opportunity to hear any observations that you may have missed. And if you’re wondering how you will be able to provide a summary so soon, it should be easy — just go through the table you’ve been filling in all day.
Close the loop early by sending top-line notes
In the spirit of communication, email your stakeholders a bulleted list of your summary within 24 hours of your research. As an extra bonus, work with your designers to include recommendations or intended changes if time is sensitive.
Every study has a back room
Every study has a back room, even if there is no one in it. Whether it occurs in a car between in-home visits, at your desk reading diary entries, or behind a one-way mirror observing a focus group, the back room is where the synthesis happens, regardless of methodology. And it is crucial to bring your stakeholders along on this research journey. What are your strategies to moderate the back room? Share them with @; I’d love to hear more tips.