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Use Body Language to Strengthen Your UXR Interviews

What is often a subconscious act can have unexpected implications on your research. Here's how to use body language to everyone's advantage.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Alisa Harvey

Body language is a fundamental concept in our everyday lives. It affects work meetings, romantic relationships, friendships, and how we engage with strangers. Yet, for something so present and very natural for us, it is also highly unconscious.

We show our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions through body language all the time, but we are often unaware of how people perceive our body language. The impact can be huge, from settling a contentious meeting to inflating your confidence and degrading a stranger.

When body language impacts UXR outcomes

Whether you conduct in-person or remote research, there are many moving pieces to juggle. You’re meeting a stranger in an environment they might not be used to, whether in a work setting or over a video call.

If you only have 60 minutes (or less) with a participant, it’s essential to make them feel as comfortable as possible, as quickly as possible.

A host of factors play into how a participant responds within this setting. A huge part of user research is making the participant feel as comfortable as possible, so they can share honest feedback candidly and openly.

This feedback may be challenging to share, whether it includes personal stories or giving negative feedback that puts them in a negative light. The critical question is, how quickly can you get to this relationship?

If you only have 60 minutes (or less) with a participant, it’s essential to make them feel as comfortable as possible, as quickly as possible.

How can researchers change their body language?

There are a handful of standard nonverbal communication techniques you can employ to make yourself—as a researcher—look more friendly, engaged, and interested. In turn, these approaches make your participants feel more comfortable with you.

These techniques also work with colleagues, partners, and friends!

It can be easy to forget these "common sense" techniques in the research process, so I keep a small checklist I review before a session. Some of these apply only to in-person sessions, but some apply to remote research as well.

1. Sit at the same level as the participant

Your chairs are at the same level, you are eye-to-eye, and you never stand over someone. When possible, sit next to the participant, as opposed to across from them, since it will feel more like you are peers and less like an interrogation.

2. Take up as little physical space as possible

You want the participant to feel like the most important person in the room. This means putting your legs together and physically making yourself look smaller. Leaning forward helps with this, as you are less likely to be splayed about and will appear more compact.

3. Dress similarly, or in a relatable way to the interviewee

This is only sometimes possible, as you can't predict what participants might wear. But you can still do your best. At times, this has meant walking into a more formal office with casual attire since I knew the participants would be more likely to show up in jeans and a T-shirt rather than a suit.

4. Make sure you’re slightly leaning forward when listening to a participant

With this position, you are less likely to cross your arms, which can signify withdrawal and disinterest. Instead, by leaning forward, you are showing the participant you are intrigued by what they say, and you're focused on them.

5. Nod a lot and use micro-expressions

Nodding and micro-expressions indicate you are listening and understanding what the participant is saying to you. I will occasionally sprinkle their monologues with "mmhmm," "okay," or "oh yeah." People get uncomfortable when they go a while speaking without any confirmation that the other side is still with them. Doing this is especially important in a remote session when the participant can't fully experience your body language.

6. Always introduce the session

I've seen many sessions begin by just diving into big questions. Take the time to introduce the session and yourself! This introduction includes explaining the setup, how long the session will be, what they can expect (I always say it will be a conversation on X topic), and what you want. This way, they can mentally prepare themselves for the upcoming session. Additionally, when you take the time to introduce yourself, you make the participant feel more comfortable.

7. Be careful of too much eye contact

Eye contact is critical to make the participant feel like you are paying attention by maintaining a gaze, but that doesn't mean intently staring into their eyes. Staring too much or without blinking can make the participant feel uncomfortable. I always try to act as if I am talking to a friend.

8. Pay attention to the tone of your voice

Often, a researcher can sound aggressive or intense when asking questions without intending to be. I speak in a higher and softer pitch to make the questions sound more conversational and less like an interrogation. Also, you can use open-ended questions to encourage conversation rather than interrogation.

9. Avoid distractions

Always put phones, computers, watches, Kindles (I've seen it happen), and any other electronic device away. One surefire way to make a participant feel uncomfortable and unheard is the constant pinging or checking notifications. Make sure you deliberately share if you will be writing down notes so that the participant is aware.

More advanced techniques and frameworks

The above ideas are relatively well known, so I’m also sharing some more advanced ideas I have formulated or heard of over the years. These concepts are a bit more thought-provoking and take more effort to utilize.

10. Think about where the research is taking place

Are you bringing the participant into your environment, or are you entering the participant's environment? The environment will dictate who the host is and who the guest is, which will help determine how to behave in either setting.

If you are hosting the participant in your space, whether an office or a research lab, it is your job to welcome them into your space as if they were a guest at a dinner party.

They probably aren't sure where to go or what to expect from the session. Explanations, such as where the bathroom is, asking them if they want any water, and ensuring you collect them from the lobby on time, will make them feel more comfortable in a foreign environment.

On the flip side, you can take a more flexible approach as a guest in a participant's environment. For example, there might be phones ringing during the research session, they may be running late, or people may walk into the office space by mistake, so keeping an open mind with a lot of smiling and appreciative statements is key.

Also, always say yes to water if someone offers. It makes them feel more helpful!

11. Get into character

I have my user researcher character I take on, similar to an actress in a play. My user research character is optimistic, constantly smiling and thanking people.

When in character, you let go of your day-to-day stress and problems and the fact that you spilled coffee all over yourself while walking your dog early that morning. Instead, you take a deep breath, put on your user research mask, and adopt the researcher attitude of being curious, interested, and invested in your participant.

12. Make the participant feel more important

The status and the hierarchy of the relationship is critical. Generally, you want to lower your status in a research interview. You can do this by lowering your chair slightly, taking up less space, and boosting the participant's status with statements like "I'm super excited to talk to you, we couldn't do this without you."

There are, occasionally, certain situations that may require you to heighten your status. For example, I might level up my status if I am speaking with a scientist about a complex product or concept. I seem to understand them better with this approach, so they open up more. I could do this by taking up more space or speaking more loudly. Keep status in mind, especially when you sense the participant is uncomfortable.

13. Downplay the prototype

A great way to get honest and open feedback is to downplay and lower the status of the prototype you are testing. The participant then feels they can discuss and criticize what is in front of them.

If they feel you have not set the design or experience in stone, they’re more likely to give constructive feedback. On the other hand, if you present the prototype as a finished product, people will be less likely to share their opinions on how to improve it.

14. Always be aware of how the participant is feeling

If something isn't working, be flexible and try to troubleshoot the situation. For example, you may be lowering your status too much, making the participant uncomfortable. Be willing to adjust as you go to make the research session even better.

One last tip for participant comfort

Body language aside, the biggest mistake I have seen that makes the participant uncomfortable is poor room setup. Always ensure the room is as minimal as possible, meaning there isn't a lot of visible stuff.

If you are recording, ensure the camera isn't directly in the participant's face or looming over them. When colleagues want to participate in watching the research, I make sure to have them dial in instead of having many people in the room. I always keep the list of people dialing into the video conference hidden.

How do you figure out what you are or aren't doing well? Watch yourself in interviews and assess them. You might hate it, but this will help you realize what you're missing and how to improve these techniques. Another great way is to coach junior or non-researchers. The more you teach something, the easier it is to do it yourself!

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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