Silence is Golden: How to Apply Cognitive Psychology for More Effective UX Research Interviews and Conversations

Posted by David Muñoz on Aug 12, 2021

As UX researchers, insights from cognitive psychology can help improve skills related to interviews, meetings, and communication. This year, as virtual communication took center stage, many of us felt the negative effects of “Zoom fatigue.” With interest in this topic growing, Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab recently published the first peer-reviewed paper on “Zoom fatigue.” Unsurprisingly, they found that close-up eye contact, constant mirroring, reduced mobility, and cognitive load can all exhaust us mentally and physically when taking multiple calls a day over time.

While many of us understand “Zoom fatigue,” what may not be top-of-mind is how cognitive load impacts the way we interact and meet with others, whether virtual or in-person. As a UX Researcher with a background in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and cognitive psychology, I often find myself reflecting on the dynamics and communication (or lack thereof) amongst teams after meetings.

How Our Brains Process And React to Sound

As innately social creatures, our brain has evolved over time to optimize interactions during conversation. A research study across 10 languages around the world (including countries such as Italy, Namibia, Mexico, Laos, Denmark, Korea, the U.S., the Netherlands, Japan, and Papua New Guinea) found that people typically answer a question within 207 milliseconds (ms), on average. If that sounds fast, that’s because it is! Consider the following:

In other words, thanks to our brain’s fast processing time, we’re able to respond to a question in a conversation as fast as a blink or the start of a race. However, the second fact above focuses on professional sprinters, which most of us aren’t. So, what does research show about how quickly the average person reacts to stimuli?

So, what does this mean?

A few things should stand out. First, these studies reflect averages (meaning many have a higher or lower response time) for healthy, young adults; additionally, an individual’s response time might be higher or lower due to a variety of factors such as age, neurodiversity, or any visual/auditory/cognitive impairments. Second, these numbers are higher in comparison to the 207 milliseconds it takes the average speaker to respond to a question. If it takes 600 ms to think of a single word and speak it, how can a speaker respond to a question in 207 milliseconds? Well, the same study concludes that based on speech cues, we anticipate rather than wait for the moment when it's our turn to speak. We risk losing our turn, or seeming hesitant, if we don't jump right into the flow.” 

To put it more bluntly, our default behavior is not to fully listen to a conversation we’re engaged in. Instead, we’re listening while also thinking of how we’ll respond. Our brains have evolved to respond in this somewhat selfish and socially favorable way (i.e., quickly). In fact, after 600 milliseconds, we are more likely to use filler words (such as “um” or “uh”) to indicate that we’re still thinking through our response. This prevents someone else from speaking before we’ve finished our thought.

Many of these stats involve fast or automatic reactions compared to more deliberate responses. It’s in our best interest to try and balance these types of reactions in meetings and research sessions. Our bodies naturally try to do this by using either “fight” or “flight” responses, depending on the situation (i.e., the sympathetic nervous system makes the body adapt to “fight”, and the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body to “escape”). Learn more about these mechanisms.

Besides keeping some of these statistics in mind and giving ourselves more time to listen before responding, what are some of the things you should consider to truly make silence golden?

Silence in Interviews of All Kinds

Slowing down and creating purposeful silence can help in any type of interview, from a research study with a participant to your own personal interviews and interactions with others.

As the interviewer

When interviewing a participant in a research study, I recommend mentioning that there aren’t any right or wrong answers during the introduction. I also always mention there isn’t a time limit (though of course, I will redirect the conversation based on a participant’s answer if needed). I have found that this additional instruction can not only help put participants at ease but also lead to more honest and thoughtful answers when participants don’t feel pressured to respond immediately. In addition, clarifying that there isn’t a time limit in responding may help some participants overcome common, unconscious biases such as social desirability and agreement. On the other hand, seeing which answers participants respond to immediately (versus ones where they take a moment to answer) can lead to insights too.

As the interviewee

As you progress in your career as a researcher, you can apply this thinking to job interviews as well. While you should of course prepare for potential questions to have a sense of how to answer, you will always receive unexpected questions. As an interviewee, taking a moment to collect your thoughts can leave a good impression on the interviewer — they will surely appreciate your dedication to answering intentionally. If you do need a moment to pause, just let the other person know you are thinking through your response to avoid any discomfort.

Accounting for delays

Lastly, in web conferences, a latency or lag greater than 150 ms can result in noticeable delays between video and audio. Coincidentally, that time frame is about the same as how long the typical person takes to respond to a question in a conversation. Consider that even if both your and the participant’s internet speeds are fast, latency can still arise depending on how many applications you and/or the participant have running in the background. In other words, when you build purposeful silence into an interview, consider that the person you’re talking with might have additional time built in due to all these factors. 

Of course, be mindful about how long and how often you employ silence. Even though pauses can help the flow of the conversation and give participants time to think, there is still a fine balance between the “instinctive” answer a participant may have and the “reflective” answer they might have if they pause and consider multiple angles. The truth to many of your questions will likely fall somewhere in the middle of those two answers, so don’t overly bias the participant to the point that they pause for 10 seconds after every question.

Silence when Presenting

UX Researchers present often, including research proposals, research plans, discussion guides, reports, and executive summaries. Leverage silence to make your research process more impactful by doing the following:

  • After reviewing a major section of a research document, pause in case anyone had a question earlier but didn’t want to interrupt. Additionally, some might have questions but held off from asking so that they could see whether the rest of that section’s content might address their comments.
  • After presenting a finding that is key to answering one or more of the research goals, wait a moment before continuing. Since others won’t be as close to the research as you are, they may need a moment to react and digest the findings before formulating follow-up questions.
  • Pause after presenting counterintuitive findings and/or insights that contradict the team’s initial hypotheses. Most people don’t enjoy the feeling of cognitive dissonance and may need some time to fully digest the implications of what you’re presenting. 

Our brains are incredible information processors and can respond either quickly or more deliberately depending on the situation. Instead of preparing your responses before someone has finished speaking, try to be mindful of how quickly you’re responding. Building in purposeful silence (within reason) can help you foster more deliberate, intentional, and meaningful conversations over time.

Want to learn more? Read other articles by David:

Written by

David Muñoz

David Muñoz is a Research Manager who has led research efforts for the past decade for in-house SaaS and mobile product teams in the technology, financial, and nonprofit sectors. David holds a B.S. in Psychology from Duke University and an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction from Georgia Tech.

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