The Role of Body Language in User Research


A word map with words like body language, communication, culture, gestures

What is the role of body language in user research? Let’s say you find yourself in the middle of a test session and the user you’re with isn’t doing the best job of articulating their thoughts and feelings. You should remain vigilant in listening to the participant, but you can also focus more of your attention on their nonverbal behaviors like posture, hand gestures, facial expressions, etc. This nonverbal data can be coupled with other qualitative feedback you observe, and it will help you better understand what the user’s actual feelings and emotions are during the test session.

In 1967, two research studies (Mehrabian & Wiener and Mehrabian & Ferris) were conducted and in combining them we were first introduced to what is called the 55/38/7 Formula. The numbers represent the percentages of importance that varying communication channels have. The belief is that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken. The formula is not an exact science, and it must be applied appropriately, but the formula was created to provide a solution to one specific context – when the nonverbal channel and the verbal channel are not matching. More specifically, the formula speaks to this precise context: "When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred." To be frank, what this means is that when you are in a situation in which someone is verbally telling you something, yet their body language is telling you something else, it’s the body language that you should trust to be more accurate.

One way of increasing your accuracy when trying to examine verbal and nonverbal communication channels simultaneously is to apply the 3 C's of nonverbal communication: context, clusters, and congruence.

  • Context: Includes what environment the situation is taking place in, the history between the people, and other factors such as each person's role; for example, an interaction between a boss and employee. Crossing your arms at your chest can be a sign of being resistant and close-minded, however, if the person's shoulders are raised and their teeth are chattering, they’re likely just cold!
  • Clusters: Looking for nonverbal communication gestures in clusters prevents us from allowing a single gesture or movement to be the definitive source when ruling on a person's mood or emotional state of mind.
  • Congruence: Whether or not the spoken words match the tone of voice and the body language. For example, if a user is interacting with a website and they verbally state that the layout and design of the page is fine, however their facial expressions are indicative of confusion, that might be your cue to go ahead and probe a little deeper because something just doesn’t seem right.

The 55/38/7 Formula and the 3 C's of nonverbal communication both remind us that a single gesture or comment from someone does not necessarily mean something concrete, so don’t jump the gun too quickly. Within the user research arena, body language can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Illustrators: Gestures that compliment verbal communication. For example, pointing to something that you are talking about. Such signals reinforce what is being said. Illustrators, too, are different from culture to culture. Looking into a person’s eyes while emphasizing a point is considered rude in Asia, but shows interest and confidence in North America.
  • Affect Displays: Gestures or facial expressions that show emotions. For example, shaking when in anger or using silence to show displeasure.
  • Regulators: Gestures that provide feedback during a conversation. They modulate, regulate, and maintain the flow of speech. For example, using sounds like “uh-huh” when nodding your head to indicate understanding.
  • Adaptors: Gestures that satisfy a physical need. For example, scratching an itch or biting fingernails when nervous. Such body movements are carried out at a low-level of awareness.

Common situations in UX research, and some of the more relevant emotions to pick up on while observing users, include:


  • Hands in front of stomach: There is another gesture that you can use to identify a confident person, which is clasping the hands in front of the stomach. This one is more popular and is usually seen on television when a president, a minister, or a government official is standing.
  • Finger tips touching: A third gesture that shows confidence is when finger tips touch each other. A person will make this gesture when they feel confident about the topic they’re talking about, or when they believe they know much about the topic they’re listening to.


  • Scratching the top of the head: Scratching the back or top of the head using the fingers at any point on the top of the hair or at the back of it.
  • Leaning forward and bringing the hand to the top of the head: When describing something to someone or when giving instructions, if you see this gesture may indicate the person is confused.


  • Scratching the back of the head or rubbing the neck from behind: This is a clear sign of frustration according to body language. Some other ‘frustration’ body language gestures include:
    • Vigorously scratching your hands, face or other body parts.
    • Abrading your face with one of your fingers.
    • Tapping your hands against your lap.
    • Shaking your foot repeatedly in a nervous manner.

Those are just a few examples of some key emotions you may be able to identify and validate using body language the next time you are conducting some in-field user research. 

Honing these skills and utilizing them appropriately will improve the interactions you have with your test participants, and they will help you generate more accurate and actionable feedback from your users. A good moderator should be able to probe further if he/she notices an inconsistency between the user’s spoken words and the nonverbal body language cues they are exhibiting.

Be sure to check out the infographic for a quick review.


READ MORE: Outstanding UX Research Naturally Leads Us to UX Design, 5 Commonly Used Metrics in User Research,  3 Tips to Get Leadership to Value UX Using Business Outcomes, Our Researchers Can Join Your Team

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