The power of awkward silence in user testing sessions

May 26 2017

Looking back over the vast majority of user testing sessions I have conducted, I noticed a pattern in where I felt I got the most value from each individual session.

I’m talking about the moment where the room is silent and there’s that awkward pause where the user is struggling and everything in your being is telling you to help them. It’s the moment in the session when they’ve been struck by genuine confusion that causes a gap in the person articulating thoughts back to you as they move through the prototype. If you cave and give into your inherent human desire to help then you risk losing highly valuable insights. You’ll know that moment is happening because you’ll feel it in your gut. You’ll see the obvious on screen where the person sees something else. You’ll see it in their eyes and you’ll want to help by telling them the answer or even ask them something like “What did you expect to happen here?”

Exercise restraint and give that moment time to breathe.

Wait for the silence to become uncomfortable and then keep waiting. If you speak first, you lose. Whatever they say first will be an insight. Even if it’s simply “I’m stuck…” or an “I don’t know what to do here…” that gives you a foundation upon which to build a line of questioning to dig deeper. Or they’ll tell you the answer and it will be gold.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that after that moment in the session it’s generally the point at which the person loosens up a bit more and talks more candidly about their thought process and becomes more openly critical about your work. For me, this is what defines a useful user testing session versus a session resulting in a blank page with a lack of insights. Otherwise, we could end up going through the motions in a session where you both know the person isn’t being entirely honest because they don’t want to offend people and you end up receiving low-quality feedback, or some of the feedback simply isn’t communicated because that barrier hasn’t been removed.

I believe it’s still important to lay the groundwork in making them feel at ease, like reassuring them that you didn’t design this thing and that it was the team back in the office (even though you totally designed it), and the fact that you’re helping us make this thing better (which is true) — it’s in that moment of awkwardness where they struggle and you exercise restraint — that’s where the real value lies.