How To Observe the User and Tap Into the Experience

Guest post by Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain
They are the founders of ActiveComm Labs, who specialize in user experience and human factors research.

Imagine if a person could know almost everything about you by simply looking at you. He could tell your profession by looking at your hands and wrists. He could tell where you were from by your dress and speech. He could tell what you like to eat and drink from your teeth and lips. With little effort he could know your deepest secrets and know you better than your best friend. These are the attributes of Sherlock Holmes, a fictional private detective from turn of the century literature. Holmes may at times have seemed like a super hero with a near omniscient power of the criminals he chased, but his abilities were based on real skills that are honed by real-life detectives every day.

A few months ago, we shared with you a way to communicate with research participants to help them to feel more comfortable and speak openly. In this article, we are going to delve into Observation Skills that can really help you to get the most out of your research.

Much like the Active Listening Skills that we discussed previously, Observation skills can help you to better understand the user during a research session. All of the small bits and pieces of information that is emitted by a person at any given moment amount to so much more than the words that they speak. Non-verbal communication can account for as much as 93% of total communication with spoken words accounting for only 7%. On top of that, there is a popular saying here at ActiveComm Labs, “behavior doesn’t lie.” You’ll never have to worry if a person is being completely open with you or if they are remembering incorrectly, what you observe from them is undoubtedly what they are experiencing. By combining the information you gather from observation with your ability to communicate using Active Listening skills, you will have a powerful tool to inquire about the emotional experience that you are observing, and truly tap into the user experience.

The Act of Observing

There are myriad aspects of human behavior, too many to observe and record comprehensively in real time. However, it’s because of this massive amount of information that we can tap into an experience. Of all the different types of communication, verbal communication provides people with the greatest control. Many people feel safer communicating through email or text message rather than speaking in-person because they are nervous about the messages that their involuntary body language and facial expression will convey. We’ll have to pick and choose which aspects of observable behavior we will attend to based on what we expect to find relevant to the user experience. With that said, we’ll discuss behavior and how it can be observed and interpreted. We’ll also discuss how to apply the information you gather through observation and combine those observations with communication skills like Active Listening. One thing to keep in mind as you become aware of all of the information you gather through observation, is that it’s imperative that you avoid jumping to conclusions. There is almost always an alternative explanation to any observed behavior; this is where verification through communication will be essential.

Through this article, we’ll start with the most general behaviors (physical characteristics) and work our way to the most specific (eye movements).

Physical Characteristics

Physical characteristics include factors such as height, weight, body type, hair color, eye color, complexion, and so on. There’s quite a bit that you can glean about a person’s general lifestyle by looking at these characteristics. For example, a person with a muscular build is likely to exercise on a regular basis. A person with fair skin probably doesn’t spend much time in the sun. Health of the hair and skin can provide hints as to the food that a person eats and whether they smoke. These are all clues that are part of an overall puzzle. Keep these lifestyle factors in mind when you are forming your questions and interpreting answers, it’s not unusual for lifestyle to shape product usage.

Personal Style

Personal style tells you more about a person’s lifestyle and also their values. Observing a person’s hair and clothes can tell you how the person wants to be perceived by the world. A woman with a glamorous hair style that’s reminiscent of a Hollywood movie star is a person that cares about her appearance and is willing to spend money to achieve it. On top of that, it’s reasonable to think that she has the means to pay for expensive hair care. A man wearing a suit during the day probably has a job in which he interacts with clients that are considering spending a significant amount of money. A person wearing tight-fitting athletic gear is very likely to spend some time at the gym or some other physical activity. There are a variety of different aspects of a person’s lifestyle that can be gleaned from their personal style, it’s important to be aware of these things and think about what these observable characteristics tell you about the person.

Body Language

Body language is great for gauging a person’s mood and comfort level. A person that’s comfortable will seem relaxed, maybe he’ll slouch a bit in his chair, his arms and legs will be uncrossed and open. A person that’s uncomfortable will be sitting up straight and changing position often, fidget, and cross his arms in front of him. A person that’s interested and engaged will lean forward, literally on the edge of her chair; her body will be oriented toward the point of interest. A person that’s feeling sad will seem to droop down, her head will hang, her eyelids will be heavy, and her shoulders will slump. Use these clues adjust your communication. Try to make someone nervous feel more at ease, recognize that a person that’s relaxed will communicate with you more freely, and tread lightly around intense emotions like sadness or anger all of these actions will help you to build rapport and maximize the amount of information you can get from a research session.

Facial Expression

Facial expressions, like body language, can provide specific information about a person’s emotional state. Unlike body language, some elements of facial expression are wholly involuntary and respond almost instantly to the person’s immediate experiences. It takes quite a bit to learn all of the different microexpressions, but if you do, you can function like a human lie detector and more. Rather than drudge all of the myriad different types of facial expressions and their underlying meaning, I’ll direct you to the foremost authority in the world, Dr. Paul Ekman. Dr. Ekman has spent decades studying facial expressions and produced some easy to consume training programs, I highly recommend this program ( to anyone that is more interested in understanding the people around you. Being able to make sense of facial expressions will help you tremendously when observing a research participant interact with a product.

Vocal Rate and Tone

Vocal rate and tone further indicates emotional states and also provides clues to specific things that a person finds valuable or interesting. The rate of speech will indicate a person’s energy level and vocal tone will indicate excitement, sadness, anger, or fear. Aside from that, a person will tend to emphasize words that he considers important. For example, by listening to a person speak about her life and extracting only the words she emphasized, you can arrive at a list that includes such words as career, travel, health, and family. You can use these clues to guide your communication and extract more information about the person while also making her feel more at ease by letting you know that you understand where she’s coming from. This can also give you clues as to which product features are most interesting to the participant.

Eye Movement

Eye movement is an excellent indicator of attention and can provide clues to a person’s specific thoughts. Where a person’s eyes land is usually what he is thinking about. If the person repeatedly looks at the clock, you can reasonably assume that he is thinking about the time, maybe because he has someplace they need to be at a certain time or he may be bored. Eye movement happens fast, and it is one of the most ambiguous of observable behavior, so be very careful not to jump to conclusions and also be aware of yourself enough to know if you’re staring. During a research session, look for patterns in eye movement. A person’s gaze might tend to fixate on parts of the product that really catch the person’s attention, whether that’s part of the interface or part of the casing for a physical product or even an advertisement for a web-based product. There are no easy rules when it comes to interpreting eye movements, you’ll have to think about what the movements could mean and communicate closely with the person to see what your observations really mean. Because eye movements can be so tricky, don’t try to make any sense of them if you are not in direct communication with the person.


I had some of the best observation practice that I’ve had in my life through a job that I had while I was working my way toward an undergraduate degree at a mere 19 years of age. That job was as a security guard. At the time, I thought of the job as just a job. After all, how much can one get out of guarding a mostly empty building through the night? On the other hand, it provided me my first chance at observation training and many, many empty hours to hone my craft.

As a security guard, it was my primary job to observe. My training amounted largely to observing and recording the characteristics of any suspicious individual and contacting police as well as my supervisor. It turns out that the liability involved with me actually trying to physically restrain someone was just too great and litigation was more expensive than most of the products that might be stolen. I spent many an hour mentally recording height, weight, hair color, eye color, facial characteristics and more. With that in mind, that is a great place to start your training.

When you set out to develop your observation skills, there’s a simple exercise that you can do to help. When you encounter a person while in a public place, in the time that you are with that person, see what you can observe about him or her. Catalogue the person’s height, weight, build, hair color, eye color, clothing and any distinguishing marks as though you will have to describe the person to the police afterwards. Notice important and telling details like whether the person is wearing a wedding ring. Also notice the person’s body language, facial expressions and eye movements, see what hypothesis you can form about their emotional state. Be careful not to stare while you’re observing all of these things, you don’t want to come off as creepy. If you feel comfortable, engage the conversation and see which of your estimates were on the mark. Once you feel comfortable with this exercise, up the ante and see if you can observe 2, 3 or 4 people at once. As you go through these exercises, you’ll notice that your ability to observe will increase tremendously.


It’s important to remember that observing these elements of non-verbal communication provide clues to what is going on for a person. Be cautious and don’t jump to conclusions based on what you see. Instead, use your communication skills to verify anything that you see. If a person’s wearing a Billabong shirt, rather than assuming that the person is surfer, say something like “Nice shirt, do you like to surf.” The person’s response will tell you if she is really a surfer or if she borrowed the shirt from her sister. The active listening skills we discussed in our previous post can provide you with guidelines to responding to emotional states. These skills are powerful and extremely useful, you’ll find by using them that it will seem that the world will open up and every experience will seem richer.

We at ActiveComm Labs are big believers in communication and forging a personal connection while conducting research. We also love talking about communication and its role in research, so we invite anyone to contact us if you’re interested in discussing research or communication or learning more about our approach to tapping into the User Experience.