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Reading Non-Verbal Communication in UX Research

by Anke Schreiber , 11.04.2012

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

I recently sat in on a presentation about gestures which made me think about the way in which we communicate with others around us. How do we actually convey meaning to others, and how do we communicate with others when we feel we cannot say what we think openly? As I rode the bus home from work one night, I began thinking more about this. I think everyone has been in the situation at one point or another where they’ve been on the bus with someone who has either treated his or her fellow passengers to a diatribe about social injustice or has felt the need to let everyone know how wronged he/she has been by the bus driver or one of the other passengers.

What do people do when this happens? They turn away from the person, then they slowly start inching away. More than that, though, they begin looking at each other, rolling their eyes and making it clear to each other that that other guy is out of line.  They don’t ask him to keep it down—that would be equally as taboo.

So what does this have to do with UX, you ask? There are instances we have to communicate with each other non-verbally, be it because of social conventions or direct instruction. We do not stop communicating with each other in these circumstances; we just have to resort to communicating non-verbally. As much as this is true on the bus, it is also true in both individual and group research situations. Participants come in to answer questions and even though we ask them to be honest, we as researchers are in a position of power over them, which makes it more likely that they will try to please us and answer “correctly.” So in order to get reactions that are true and honest, it is important for UX professionals to be able to tell when participants are not being honest. Though it can be hard to tell the difference between when a participant is telling the truth and when he or she is just trying to please, non-verbal cues shed important light on this question and are important for UX researchers to be able to read.

In individual sessions, these cues give signals to how to approach a participant and what kinds of questions to ask. In a focus group session, nonverbal communications are no less important. The bus example is perhaps slightly more relevant here in that there is a group dynamic in a focus group setting and participants can signal to the moderator or to each other when they disagree with someone in the group. Particularly in a group setting, it is important to keep an eye on other participants when they signal disagreement with other participants, if only to encourage them to vocalize their disagreement. Even if they do not verbalize their thoughts, participants’ gestures are an important artifact of the session and merit at least some consideration by researchers.

This blog is intended to be food for thought. I believe that we as UX researchers can enrich what we do by being more attuned to non-verbal cues, be it as stand-alone observations or merely as observations that guide questioning. Especially in situations where we take participants out of their context and put them into ours for a limited amount of time, it is important to use all the tools at our disposal to make sure participants are honest and open so we can maximize the short time we have.