Understanding Body Language In UX Research Part I

Understanding Body Language In UX Research Part I

In this two-part series I will provide some research based insights on body language that we can use to our advantage during UX research sessions.

This will give you an enhanced awareness of what to look for so that a potentially wasteful session could make for a more productive one…

A participant that you’ve been moderating a session with is sitting upright with his ankles locked next to you. His fingers are interlocked and his lips pursed. He answers your question with a head nod reassuringly, but succinctly, “Yeah sure. I’d use this tool if it were available to me.”

As soon as he finishes speaking he begins to scratch the back of his neck. He touches his nose.

In this example, should we believe what the participant is saying? Is he being forthright? He nodded his head, didn’t he? But what did he mean by scratching his neck? Maybe he was just anxious. Maybe he wasn’t. It’s very difficult to tell based on all of his gestures. You will soon find out there is more to reading body language than looking at a couple of gestures.

According to body language experts Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, gestures must be viewed in combinations called clusters in order to be accurately interpreted; the context of these gestures also need to be considered.

The everyday gestures that we use are windows into how we are truly feeling. They give us suggestions as to whether or not someone is lying or telling the truth, interested or bored, stressed or relaxed, feeling intimidated or wanting to intimidate.

Most of the time when doing in-person UX research sessions, we ignore body language in favour of the spoken word.

As a UX researcher I admittedly spend much more time listening to the words of participants rather than reading their body language. When we listen to their opinions we try to assess whether they are truthful. Observing their actions also helps us evaluate their credibility. Reading the words on a page gets easier as we age, interpreting body language doesn’t; we get stuck in the learning stage of what psychologist Martin Broadwell calls unconscious incompetence.

It tends to get nestled into our unconscious mind, making itself inaccessible and upstaged by what we hear. We simply don’t know what to do with the information. We might visually recognise that a person is reacting to something we say but we don’t necessarily invest enough time interpreting whether these gestures actually mean anything.

Should we? Some would argue that we shouldn’t. But several studies have shown that we can reliably improve our understanding. Can we use what we learn from reading someone’s cluster of gestures to our advantage when it comes to moderating UX research sessions?

Two research-based insights that have important implications for moderating UX research sessions are:

  • A persons gestures and emotions bidirectionally influence one another
  • A key place to look when someone is not being forthright is the face

According to body language experts, a person’s’ gestures and emotions bidirectionally influence one another.

Research on priming proves this. Professor Daniel Kahnemann, in his modern classic book about heuristics and biases, Thinking, Fast and Slow indicates that actions and emotions can be primed by events people aren’t even aware of. To prove that actions and emotions can bidirectionally affect one another, an experiment with college students was conducted where students were asked to hold a pencil between their teeth for a few seconds forcing their mouth either into a smile or a frown while reading The Far Side cartoon and rating its humour. The students who found the cartoons funnier were the ones whose face was forced into a smile.

If changing a person’s facial expression primes them into changing their sentiment while reading a comic strip, could we not do the same in UX research sessions?

How can we prime a participant in such a way that they would be inclined to disclose more information

We would need to identify when they might be holding back information from the moderator. What stance might they take when unwilling to be as open about themselves during a session? According to body language experts, people may cross their arms or legs to form a defensive barrier between themselves and others. They may keep their palms closed and facing down.

By recognising the clusters; in this case the defensive poses. The context; in this case their unwillingness to provide more information during a session. The moderator can then find a way to prime them into a more open position.

If there is a stimulus or artefact as a part of the research protocol, use this as an opportunity to get them to hold it in their hands. If it’s on a computer, then have them move closer to the computer. They may be forced to unfold their arms or change their posture so that they can see the screen. Their palms may be opened suggesting a willingness to engage more openly. Once they change their posture participants are more likely to provide more feedback to the moderator making for more fruitful research insights.   

Body language experts suggest a key place to look at when a person is not being forthright is the face.

According to their research, we are likely to cover our eyes, ears or mouth with our hands when we hear or speak lies. A study of nurses in a role-playing situation were told to lie to their patients. The nurses who lied showed more hand-to-face gestures than those who didn’t. Those common lying gestures include: covering of the mouth, touching of the nose, rubbing of the eye, grabbing of the ear, scratching of the neck, pulling of their collar, or putting finger(s) in their mouth. Recognising these signs along with incompatible dialogue will help you weigh whether or not to consider excluding participant data.

Consider double-downing on your inquiry by rephrasing questions differently and see if the same answer is achieved. Seek clarification when body language tells you otherwise. Read back to the participant their earlier response and follow up with questions like “can you tell me more about that?” or “what did you mean when you said…?” If they respond differently than what they said earlier then there is a good chance that their gestures were revealing the truth about their lies.

In part II we will examine other gestures that hint at a person not being honest. Stay tuned!

Pease, A., & Pease, B. (2006). The Definitive Book of Body Language. New York: Bantam Dell Pub Group.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Navarro, J., & Karlins, M. (2008). What Every Body Is Saying. New York: HarperCollins.

Strack, F., Martin, L., and Stepper, S., (1988). “Inhibiting and facial conditions of the human smile: a non-obtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54.

Valentine, J., Best Practices for Equity Research Analysts (2011). New York: McGraw Hill.
“Conscious Competence Learning Model.” (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.businessballs.com/self-awareness/conscious-competence-learning-model-63/#toc-9

Written by
Michael Morgan
Join the discussion

  • Thanks Michael for the analyst. Indeed what you wrote was true, those are all my gesture, body language that rises suspicious. Mind you, I really don’t have the knowledge that today will be having so many people in this chatting sessions. My language expression level was low and I keep thinking a words to add on to each of the sentences. Do you have any idea, thoughts or books recommend for me to read. I wish I could change to be better. Thanks for letting me know about my weaknesses. Cheers Michael❤️👍 you can reply me after your precious moments with your wife and your princess. Bye.

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