Designing for the Non-Verbal: A More Active Approach

Last week we discussed the importance of interpreting non-verbal body language and setting the strategic processes in place to notate your findings. Yes, it is important to take note of the way someone is sitting, tilting their head, or squinting their eyes. All of these gestures offer profound insight into the way a product is making users think and feel. Now, let’s take it a step further.

Because the non-verbal cues offer such insights, we suggest that you actually design scenarios to encourage non-verbal communication. Crafting specific opportunities for your users to express non-verbally will provide the insights and your users the opportunity to fully communicate their ideas. 

Often, research is conducted with a list of questions and prompts: “follow these prompts and tell us how easy/difficult it was”; “try to make a payment on the site and tell us how easy/difficult this was”. Typically, answers to these questions are written or spoken.


What if those questions or prompts were answered with facial expressions or gestures?

What if your subjects were asked to strike a pose that depicted how the experience made them feel?

The person might feel uncomfortable and give you nothing of substance. But, the user might shrug their shoulders and tilt their head. This is telling! If they loved the experience and can’t wait to use the product, it might not be difficult for them to innately show that feeling through a huge smile.

Of course, prompting users and test subjects to “step out of their comfort zones” and respond in this way might prove difficult at first. And, strategies to pull their “inner expressivity” out are wide and varied. However, difficulties will only apply to individuals that express best verbally. Remember, some of your users might have an easier time communicating without words.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Ask them to choose one word that best describes how the experience made them feel. Then, ask them to depict that emotion on their face.
  • Ask them to draw how the experience made them feel.
  • Ask them to show the face they would use while describing the product to a friend.
  • Ask if they’re willing to “act out” how the experience made them feel.
  • Ask them to take a moment to close their eyes and think about the experience. Observe their movement, breath, and energy.
  • Suggest they walk around the room immediately after interfacing with the product. Observe their mannerisms, timing, and energy 

We suggest prompting people to do things and express things. If you only ask for words, you might miss out on the differentiating insight.

Katherine Hill

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