Silence in usability moderated tests, inspired by John Cage

I recently watched a video of a pianist performing John Cage’s 4’33”. It is quite an inspiring performance, especially when we consider the pianist’s use of silence and how this also has relevance for usability moderated tests.

In the video, we see the pianist first sit at the piano, then, he places a score on the stand, sets a stopwatch, and closes the piano lid – before remaining seated quietly for 33 seconds. The pianist then briefly opens and re-shuts the lid, re-sets the stopwatch and again remains seated quietly; this time, for two minutes and 40 seconds, while occasionally turning the pages of the score. He repeats the process, but only for one minute and 20 seconds. Finally, he stands up, bows to polite applause from the audience and walks off stage.

The pianist’s performance, in three movements, is based on a unique musical composition created by John Cage. For it, Cage’s sole instruction is the use of “Tacet”, which in Latin means “[it] is silent.” This idea when used in music, is an indication that the musician is not to play anything at all.

The performance, of course, left most of the audience members with no idea of what to make of Cage’s composition. Indeed, some of them even left in a huff. But then gradually, it became clear to the discerning that the work was intended to help the audience discover the impossibility of actual silence in life; particularly, as the coughing of audience members, the squeaking of seats, and even the footsteps of audience departing, became part of the unusual composition.

In my view, the impossibility of silence in life is a very important concept. Silence according to NNG (2019), is a “powerful moderation technique for user interviews, usability testing, and workshop facilitation.” As further explained in the NNG article, “The Science of Silence: Intentional Silence as a Moderation Technique,” silence can build trust between a participant and a moderator, thus, leading to more accurate answers to questions.

To understand why NNG refers to silence as a “powerful technique”, let us imagine a scenario in which a moderator is conducting a user interview and asks a participant a question. The participant responds with a brief answer, but the moderator senses that there may be more to the participant’s response. In this situation, the moderator could choose to remain silent; thus, allowing the participant time to think and provide a more complete response. If, however, the moderator is not strategic with his or her use of silence, the participant may become uncomfortable and feel pressured to fill the silence, even if s/he doesn’t have much more to say. This can result in the participant providing less accurate, or dishonest, responses.

In contrast, if the moderator is aware of the discomfort that people may feel with prolonged silence, s/he can use silence strategically, such as by allowing a short pause after the participant’s initial response before asking a follow-up question. This pause gives the participant time to collect his or her thoughts. S/he feels heard, thus, also demonstrating to the participant that the moderator is actively listening and interested in the response.

In this example, the concept of discomfort with silence in social interactions helps to connect the idea of the impossibility of silence in life with the power of silence as a moderation technique. By acknowledging and working with this discomfort, moderators can use silence as a powerful tool for building trust and promoting honest communication in user interviews and other settings.

The value of silence is further reinforced by its use in Microsoft workshops, where participants were asked to practice being silent. In one exercise, participants are told to pair up and then, to ask one person to share something about his or herself for five minutes, while the other person stays completely silent. The result of this exercise is that the participants felt more connected. Additionally, trust and self-esteem are built on the listener’s ability to show active listening, empathy, and communication skills.

The importance of being heard, especially as relates to self-esteem, is also reflected in one of five categories in a hierarchy of needs, as described by Abraham Maslow in his theory of human motivation and development. The category of interest is called “esteem needs.” According to Maslow, once a person’s physiological and safety needs have been met, they become motivated by the desire for esteem; that is, a need for respect, self-esteem, and recognition from others.

Esteem needs can be divided into two categories:

  1.  Internal esteem needs, which refers to a person’s need for self-respect, self-confidence, and a sense of personal achievement.
  2. External esteem needs, which on the other hand, refers to a person’s need for recognition, respect, and admiration from others, as well as status, fame, and reputation.

Maslow believes that the satisfaction of esteem needs is essential for personal growth and self-actualization, as it is the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow also acknowledges that people’s esteem needs can be influenced by cultural and social factors, and that some people may have a greater need for external validation than others.

In conclusion as a UX moderator conducting a usability test, you need to define your “Tacet”; that is, your own technique of silence to use when you feel tempted to fill the silence in an interview. In the same way that Cage’s musical composition indicates when a particular instrument must be silent, a UX moderator should consider using a reminder to indicate when it is best to use silence, strategically, so as to obtain authentic and quality responses from participants.


NNG Article: The Science of Silence: Intentional Silence as a Moderation Technique

4’33” by John Cage – John Cage Live at the Barbican – BBC Four Collections

John Cage about silence

Microsoft: The power of silence in customer interviews