Research interviews go best when participants feel comfortable and confident — they’re more verbal, more willing to explore, and more willing to play along. So when an interview isn’t going well, I check for signs of low status in the person I’m interviewing and adjust my body language to make them feel more in charge.

(These techniques come from improv theater classes I took many years ago in San Francisco. In addition to learning about “yes and,” listening, and teamwork, I was introduced to the important concept of status — and how body language communicates high and low status.)

How to spot signs of low status

If you’re interviewing someone (for research purposes or otherwise) and see these symptoms, the other person is probably feeling low status and not giving you their best possible participation. I try to notice when they are:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Angling their body away from me
  • Holding something (computer, chair, backpack) between us
  • Fidgeting
  • Touching their face or hair
  • Crossing their arms or legs in a defensive or protective posture
  • Asking permission or waiting for an invitation before using the mouse or trying something
  • Speaking softly
  • Laughing nervously
  • Apologizing
  • Sitting or standing in a protective “fig leaf” pose

Individually, these behaviors don’t necessarily indicate discomfort or low status (people cross their arms when they’re cold, too), but when I notice several of them I make an effort to boost the participant’s status.

Some techniques to boost status and confidence

There are plenty of ways to improve research interviews (read 16 tips here) but these are some of my time-tested techniques for helping participants feel higher status, more comfortable, and more confident during interviews.

Lower your own status

If you come across as a confident expert, some people are less willing to offer up their opinions. These tricks can help you seem lower status, and help participants feel comfortable and confident responding.

  • Smile!
  • Look interested and attentive. Lean in. Make sure your arms and legs aren’t crossed.
  • Ask permission before moving to the next task or taking control of the mouse.
  • Sit lower: If you’re sitting on an adjustable office chair, drop it down until you’re sitting slightly lower than the other person.
  • Back up: Respect the participant’s space. If the participant is seated, don’t stand right beside or behind her.
  • Move back slightly to avoid invading personal space.
  • Avoid intense, dominant eye contact.
  • Dress similarly to the people you’re interviewing.

Lower the status of the product or design you’re testing

People are more willing to criticize something that’s “just a prototype.”

  • “Since this is a prototype [even if it’s not], some of it isn’t working quite right yet. It still needs a lot of work.”
  • “These are just some ideas we’re playing with. Looks like they still need a lot of work.”

Reassure and encourage

But try to keep your comments neutral to avoid “leading the witness.” It’s also a good way to show that you’re on the the same team as the participant — not the designs you’re testing.

  • “You’re doing great. This kind of feedback is really helpful.”
  • “It’s really helpful to watch you try to figure this out.”
  • “It’s so valuable to see this through fresh eyes!”
  • “Since I didn’t design this, there’s no risk of hurting my feelings or flattering me. Your frank feedback is really valuable to me.”
  • “You’re discovering a lot of important problems we missed.”

Be grateful

Make participants feel like they’re doing you a huge favor instead of trying to perform as your “test subject.”

  • “I really appreciate your helping me with this today.”
  • “Thanks so much for helping me figure out how to improve this.”

Monitor for results

As you use these techniques to boost participants’ status and build rapport, you should see their body language “melt” and the conversation improve. Try a couple tricks at a time — you don’t want to suddenly change your behavior in a way that seems awkward or artificial. And remember to continue monitoring their behavior for signs of low status throughout the interview.

Examples

Avoid hovering, invading personal space, and taking control of the computer.

Avoid hovering, invading personal space, and taking control of the computer.

 

Be sure to sit lower, avoid high-status body language, and show the participant you're curious and interested in what she is saying.

Be sure to sit lower, avoid high-status body language, and show the participant you’re curious and interested in what she is saying.

 

Be sure to smile and build rapport with the person you're interviewing.

Be sure to smile and build rapport with the person you’re interviewing.

 

Examples of high-status and low-status body language.

Examples of high-status (left) and low-status (right) body language.

Thank you to Aideen Stronge and Lane Kuhlman.


As social animals, we’re sensitive to a wide range of verbal and nonverbal cues — often unconsciously. A raised voice, a raised eyebrow, or a raised finger can say a lot. With a heightened awareness of basic status cues, you can monitor and use body language to improve the quality of your interviews and the research data you collect.