Every "proper" test setup seems to include a camera / webcam for recording the user and a lot of articles I've read in the past recommend it as part of a setup, but sources never really go into a reason why.

What are the benefits of recording user facial expressions when testing? How do you document this and how would the results affect your UX?

5 Answers 5


Sometimes your users and frustrated but they don't know how to express it or they're too polite to do so. Their expression might show that they found that form annoying, even if they tell you it's great! In addition the "major" facial expressions have been found to be largely innate and not bound to cultures, in fact many animals display similar facial expressions to humans for anger, fear and joy.

Facial expressions aren't the only way to read emotions either of course, and you hope if something frustrates or delights your users they'll tell you, right? Unfortunately Demand Characteristics may influence what your participants actually tell you or write in a survey, so emotions give you a quick look into their emotions. Facial expressions tell you what the participant won't.

To offer an opposing point, here's an excellent Smashing Magazine article on Behavioral Response Metrics which can give you a less subjective method of judging emotional reactions. Note they have a great deal of strategies but all are a bit more complex than just watching your users to catch a grimace or a smile, though if you wish to observe more than a few participants facial expression recognition quickly becomes a taxing operation.

How should you document this? Simply; note when a "significant" facial expression was made and at what part of the interaction it occurred. If your user smiled when they saw your nice intro page, mark that down. If you know why your user probably an expression write that down too; if the user grimaced because their action did not complete properly they probably weren't angry at the specific action, but at the fact that it "broke".

Only note changes in emotion, if your happy go lucky participant suddenly winces, something probably went wrong. If your participant was sad throughout the entirety of the session, their sadness was probably out of your control.

As interesting further reading, here's a great article on the role of Emotions in Human Computer Interaction.

  • 3
    This is a fantastic answer with good references. Thanks
    – Wander
    Nov 16, 2011 at 15:17
  • Another good reason for the camera is to track eye movement. Are the users looking where you want them to look?
    – Agent_9191
    Nov 16, 2011 at 19:29

1/ It makes the clips you show to the clients more compelling

2/ It reminds you who 'Dave' was when you've had a hard day testing...


To supplement what has been written above, if you are recording facial expressions, I think the benefit is that you see the user's body language. As as example, we had recorded students at the university I work at, FIU, to determine usability. We tested them by finding items from a poorly structured site to a well structured site. What we saw in the recording is not just how users are going from one page to another, but also see how a user gains confidence, and interest in that he/she will find what they are looking for.

It's great to see that!


Certainly useful if you are doing qualitative testing, rather than quantitative testing. It is never going to be a robust, scientific measure but in the spirit of Steve Krug's "Don't make me think", facial expressions can be very useful cues in seeing when a user is forced to think - even in think aloud tasks, thought processes can get missed and this can be a visual cue for reviewing what they were doing at the time.

Moreover, the impact of showing senior stakeholders a montage of users trying (and failing) to use their current system/website/app can't be underestimated which is why I think many people use them! ;)

If you haven't read this already, then this is great introduction to budget user testing: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rocket-Surgery-Made-Easy--yourself/dp/0321657292/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1321453616&sr=8-3


Recording facial expressions or body language would require that:

  1. You know how to reliably analyze the results.
  2. You would actually analyze the results (remember, if you are doing even say five user tests analyzing them is going to take quite a lot of time especially if you need to follow users expressions also).
  3. You would use the results of the analysis.

If can do all those things then go for it. I would probably use the resources to do couple of more tests instead. More tests == more reliable results. However if someone can point me to a source that demonstrates the benefits of recording expressions, I'd be much obliged.

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