For Huw Davies, a medical market researcher with more than a decade of experience in healthcare at medical fieldwork agency GKA, the secret of success is the ability to listen. “Moderators need to be effective communicators but they also need to listen to respondents in order to pick up on important points in order to delve into them more deeply,” he says. “Respondents, particularly healthcare professionals, have a tendency to give you stock answers that they would give in any market research situation. An effective medical moderator will go deeper and find out what they really care about.”
Ideally a moderator should fully understand every aspect of the market research study, says Huw. “Although I started out as a moderator, I spent the last 10 years running and managing medical market research projects in just about every disease area, with both patients and all types of healthcare professional. This experience has given me a wealth of knowledge about disease areas and expertise in research studies of all kinds, which I can also employ when I am moderating. Clients want a safe pair of hands and my ability to discuss all aspects of a study is extremely valuable to them,” he says.
A moderator needs to be able to think on their feet, he says. “When you are in front of the respondents it can be tempting for less experienced moderators to stick to the discussion guide, to play it safe. However, true insight only emerges when you read between the lines and really understand what interests your respondents. You need to be able to think quickly and to act with the confidence that comes from experience.”
It takes this experience to overcome the many challenges that face a moderator, says Huw. “Often, it can be challenging to draw uncommunicative respondents out, especially with patients who may be unwilling to talk about certain aspects of a disease. Here, empathy is absolutely essential because the respondent always has a good reason why they are reluctant to discuss the issue. It is about making them feel as comfortable as possible. While doctors often respond more favourably to a formal, fact-based approach and patients to a more informal one, that is not always the case, and a good moderator will adjust their manner and approach to meet the needs of each respondent.”
Huw is in great demand as a moderator not only because of his unique blend of skills and experience also because of his passion for the job. “Moderation has always fascinated me. As a healthcare fieldwork project manager, it can feel as though you’re just skimming the surface of a project but as a moderator you get the chance to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. Getting a glimpse of how doctors are really thinking or what issues are affecting the lives of patients is something that really excites me. I love building up a good level of knowledge and I won’t go into a focus group or interview unless I feel confident I know enough to make the most of the session.”
Huw is also able to see the bigger picture. “For several years, I worked closely with clients to help them find the best way to achieve the results they were looking for. Now, as a moderator, not only am I able to use my experience to help a client establish what is and what isn’t possible, I can troubleshoot on the ground to help spot issues as early as possible and find ways around them. This is an additional service that clients do not necessarily pay for but which can make all the difference in the success or failure of a project.”
As the technology improves, moderators are increasingly being asked to conduct interviews remotely. “At GKA, I helped to co-develop iThink, our secure, fast and cost-effective platform for conducting interviews and mini focus group via webcam so I am an expert user. Webcam interviews place even more responsibility on the moderator than face to face because it is far more challenging to pick up on a respondent’s body language and emotional cues. You have to use all your skill to ensure you engage as fully as possible with respondents, plus you also need to tailor your approach to their familiarity and comfort with the technology itself. As an expert user of iThink, I can even provide direct support with the technology during the session itself.”