Interpreting User Reactions

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Users are not reliable witnesses to past behavior of future preference.

Glen UX Rule #81

The problem is that our brains are complicated and don’t work logically all of the time. They work emotionally. Luckily, there is a workaround. Body language and facial expressions.

When you interview a user, don’t focus on their words. Watch them on “mute” and see if you can interpret what they think. Here is a collection of expressions they may have with a little interpretation.

You have eye contact! Great, time to get started showing them your designs. Don’t make your face too expressive, it will influence them. Just focus on watching them.


Oof, OK, maybe what you are showing isn’t so good. Disgust isn’t a good reaction. When this happens, go back to the drawing board and change things up.


Raising shoulders, looking sheepish, maybe confused. They might not understand what you are showing them. Slow down, start over. Go step by step. Find out where you lost them.


Thousand yard stare, not moving mouth, looks detached. Obviously, they are not paying attention. Maybe what you are showing them isn’t inspiring or they are the wrong persona. You have to work on the design to get them to wake up.


Squinting eyes, frowning, looking closely, skeptical. This is actually good news. It means something got under the surface. They may not even believe it. It isn’t all good. Something may still be wrong. You have to probe here. Find out the good and the bad. What are they focused on? There is magic there somewhere.


A look of concern, maybe need to look at something else and check it against what you have. A worry about what the design “means” long term. These are additional signs that you are on to something. What makes that concern? Could you be going in a dangerous direction? This is a warning sign, pay extra attention to what is going on.


Smiles, happy countenance, nodding heads, saying “yeah” and “right”. It seems like they like it. I would say “not so fast”. Just because they are agreeing with you doesn’t mean they like it. Besides you don’t want “like” you want something deeper. Don’t stop here! Keep iterating.


“OMG! This is great, I love it”. Nothing makes me more skeptical than this look. Sure, it sounds good, but I find in this case, they still may not be willing to pay money for your product or use your feature. Sometimes they are just expressing wishful thinking. Be skeptical. Focus on what works.


“Wait! Gimme that keyboard” and they literally want to grab the wheel and do it themselves. They might even start arguing with a colleague (not you) about the feature. They are treating it as important and real. They might pick on some missing detail.

This is the reaction you want. You want them to OWN this feature. You want them to internalize it. When they get passionate, truly focused, you will know it. That’s the design. Execute.

Years ago, at Marketo, I designed a thing called a Smart List. We built the first version and I was getting feedback from a prospective user. The user stopped me mid-sentence and ran to get another employee to see what it was. They were arguing over what the data was, not the feature. However, the feature made that data possible. In other words, they were in the act of extracting value. I knew it would be a hit from that meeting forward.

Watch the users facial expressions and body language. Don’t just write down what they say. Write down what they do. Maybe bring an extra designer with you to make sure someone is looking. This will help you build better products. Good Luck!

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