Understanding Body Language in UX Research

June 3, 2019

As a UX researcher, have you ever found yourself in the middle of a user-research or usability-testing session with research participants who struggle to articulate their thoughts and feelings clearly?

In such situations, focusing your attention on participants’ nonverbal behaviors such as their posture, hand gestures, and facial expressions could give you a lot more information. Of course, in these situations, it’s still very important to remain vigilant in listening to participants. In combination, verbal communication and body language can help you better understand a person’s true feelings throughout a UX-research session.

How exactly does keeping an eye on body language aid UX research?

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Body Language

According to psychologist Albert Mehrabian, there are three elements that account for our perception of a person: 7% of our impressions come from spoken words; 38%, from a person’s tone of voice; and the remaining 55%, from body language. Thus, body language is crucial in truly understanding a person.

Of course, Mehrabian’s communication theory is not exact science, and we must apply it in the appropriate situations. He developed his theory essentially to provide a solution for situations in which nonverbal and verbal channels of communication are out of sync.

According to his theory, when inconsistencies between nonverbal and verbal channels of communication arise, researchers should look at participants’ body language as the dominant and more accurate source of information. Body language paints an accurate picture of a participant’s overall attitude. In situations where words fail, the participant is feeling hesitant, or the participant is even contradicting himself, body language can reveal all the information that isn’t coming across through verbal language and tone of voice.

Mehrabian’s theory comes in handy in situations where the need to understand emotional content is significant. Therefore, it is useful in product testing and user research because, in these situations, researchers and designers must constantly attempt to determine a user’s painpoints to design the perfect solution for them.

Body language includes behaviors that show confidence, posture, facial expressions, and hand gestures. As a UX researcher, you can couple your observations of body language with other qualitative feedback to gain an understanding of the overall problem at hand.

Body Language and UX Research

When conducting user research, there are so many variables a UX researcher must control to ensure the participant feels comfortable and is willing to share—such as temperature, the environment, the number of people in the room, and lighting. But even with all these variables in perfect order, there may be times when the participant’s words fail.

At such times, you can learn a lot from the way people conduct themselves and from their body language. As a researcher, you can gain many valuable insights into the way a person actually feels about an issue through simple observation and by prompting interactions.

When engaging with participants, be sure to create rapport with them. However, you shouldn’t mirror their body language because you could come across too strong. If you observe participants moving or changing their expressions, probe further into the cause of any change. Avoid being too intense because this could shut the participant down.

When observing nonverbal communication gestures, it is important to group them in clusters. This prevents your relying on a single gesture or movement in determining a person’s emotional state. One gesture does not indicate something concrete. So don’t jump the gun. Observe everything, then put the pieces together after the research session.

Researchers’ Body Language

It is important to note that, just as you can gauge a research participant’s body language, participants can gauge yours. Therefore, ensuring that you are projecting a friendly and inviting atmosphere at all times is crucial to your receiving honest, candid feedback. You can accomplish this by employing a few nonverbal techniques yourself, such as the following:

  1. Ensure you are sitting at the same level as the participant. If you are towering over participants, they can easily start to feel intimidated or like they are being interrogated.
  2. Try to take up as little space as possible. The more space you take up, the more powerful and dominant participants perceive you to be. Because you are trying to make participants feel that they are your equal, your taking up the least amount of space possible makes them feel more at ease.
  3. Try not to cross your arms or legs. This can be a sign of withdrawal, defensiveness, or disinterest. Instead, lean forward slightly. This shows that your attention is on the participant.
  4. Use micro-expressions such as nodding or saying mmhmm or okay. This indicates that you are truly listening to participants and understanding what they are saying.
  5. Be careful to avoid too much eye contact. While it is important to show participants that you are paying attention by maintaining your gaze, staring intently would make them feel uncomfortable.

There are many more nonverbal techniques you can adopt. Find what works best for both you and your research participants, then stick with it. Ensuring that your body language remains consistent and neutral and that your reactions don’t affect participants in any way can make all the difference.


When it comes to UX research, body language plays a crucial role. Never forget this. By focusing your attention on your research participants’ gestures, facial expressions, movements, and more, you’ll be able to resolve any inconsistencies participants are exhibiting and ensure that you’re generating the most accurate information from your participants.

Using and honing these observational skills can help you to greatly improve your future interactions with participants during user research. By restraining your own body language, you can ensure you’re not the reason your participants aren’t opening up.

There are countless nonverbal skills that you can learn about and utilize. Be sure to use them to maximum effect in all of your research sessions. You’ll see that this can make all the difference. 

COO at Ranky

Tel Aviv, Israel

Shachar ShamirShachar is a co-founder at Ranky, a digital marketing agency that facilitates brand growth. When he’s not working, he’s either blogging, discovering new gadgets, or following Real Madrid CF in all their football endeavors.  Read More

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