Product Discovery

Product Discovery

Feb 1, 2023

Why "Ums" and "Ahs" matter in product discovery and UX research



Moodi Mahmoudi

Um, ah, uh – wait, I’m thinking.

Believe it or not, these sounds actually have a purpose. They’re called filler words, and in the most simple terms, they’re sounds we make during speech to fill silences.

Often unintentional, we use filler words subconsciously as our brains stall for time to, uh, think of what to say next. Consider it our brain forcing our mouths to stop talking so we can think for a moment. 

We’re all guilty of using filler words, and we use them a lot. In fact, according to a study by linguist Mark Liberman, we say “um” or “ah” an average of two or three times per minute.

Even the best orators in the world can’t avoid them. Here’s President Obama racking up a total of 236 “Uhs” in one presidential debate.

Filler words are used all over the world, although they don’t always sound like “um” or “ah”. To name just a few, Spanish speakers say "eh" and "pues", while the Japanese say "etto" and "ano".

Um, Ah – what do filler words really mean?

Filler words get a pretty bad rap – on the one hand, for good reason. We know that uttering “uh” and “um” excessively can make a person seem hesitant, insecure or uncertain. Delivering a presentation packed with these unnecessary interjections can impact your credibility and the listener’s ability to follow your message.

But what about in conversations? Studies shows that there could be more to filler words than we think.

For instance, filler words are linked to honesty and authenticity. In a study by Villar, people who were telling the truth generally used more filler words. Since Ums and Ahs imply that the speaker is thinking carefully and isn’t simply reciting memorized information, they also make the speaker seem more trustworthy to listeners. 

And as it turns out, Ums can actually be beneficial for listeners. A study by psychologist Jean E. Fox Tree found that filler words like Um can influence how listeners process information – they’re a signal for us to pay attention because we know something new or unexpected is about to be shared.

So, if Ums and Ahs imply that speakers are thinking carefully and being authentic, while even serving as markers for important information, maybe they’re not meaningless sounds to filter out, after all. 

Why Ums and Ahs matter in product discovery and user research

 During product discovery and user research, our aim is to communicate with users to get a clear and thorough understanding of their problems. We want users to share as much meaningful information as possible to help us get down to the nitty gritty of their needs and wants.

While users may be quick to share information that reflects their superficial, functional needs, what we’re really digging for are their deeper and more aspirational, emotional wants.

That requires us to ask lots of Why and thought-provoking questions which invite the user to reflect and think deeply – questions that require the users' brains to access all sorts of data that usually remains hidden away. And while the users' brain is accessing all this tucked away data, you’re guaranteed to garner more than a few Ums and Ahs from users.

We need their Ums and Ahs in order to get what comes right after – real, meaningful insights that help you build products they’ll really love.

So – what’s next?

Ums and Ahs can be a testament to deep conversations, and in product discovery, we get the most valuable insights when we push users to think more deeply about their needs and wants.

If Ums and Ahs signal that users' brains are busy thinking and trying to access data, we shouldn’t be quick to tune them out in product discovery – we may even benefit by paying close attention to them.

AT NEXT, we think of Ums and Ahs as road signs for key moments in customer conversations – like a pin dropped to mark an important place on a transcript. 

While some tools think it's a feature to automatically eliminate filler words when transcribing user interview or usability tests, at NEXT, we deliberately leave in the Ums and Ahs. They sometimes might just signal that we’re onto something big.

Get started with NEXT to start collecting your customers' Ums and Ahs.