Jeff Zych

User Research Interview Tip: Shut. Up.

If you were to look at Robert Caro’s notebook, you would see lots of “SU”s, short for “Shut Up!”, scattered throughout his interview notes. The Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Power Broker, among other mammoth books, uses this trick to keep himself silent while interviewing subjects. About this, he writes:

In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers—Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carré’s George Smiley—have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking and to let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglasses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for me, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write “SU” (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of “SU”s.

This is a fantastic trick to use during user research interviews, too. Remaining silent after a person’s initial response often leads them to elaborate more, revealing an additional nuance, or an exception to the “typical” use case they just described.

I take longhand notes on paper for this reason. My note taking never keeps pace with the speaker, so I’m always catching up after they stop talking, which forces me to shut up.

When you’re interviewing users, find your own eyeglass polishing or “SU.”

Previous article: « Interface Lovers Interview
Next article: A cautionary tale about the importance of designing every screen »