This year I made it to the CHI (Computer/Human Interaction) conference for the first time in a while. It was fun to see old friends and new research—lots of thought-provoking papers and some fun and cool technology.

But it’s the keynote that really struck a chord with me. Judith Olson talked about body language and its importance in human interactions. This is underappreciated, I think, among user researchers. Our job is to go out and get information out of total strangers—with very little time for building rapport and trust. How and where we sit, how we position ourselves relative to our users can make our task easier.

I learned this first many years ago now, not long after we started coaching teams. I was coaching a paper prototyping interview, and things seemed to be going along well, except that our user was very tense and I couldn’t figure out why. She wasn’t uncovering major problems in the prototype and she was obviously competent in her work, but she wasn’t able to relax and have fun with the process, which most users do.

Then I suddenly realized she was scrunched all the way over to one side of her chair, completely pulled in on herself. And I realized she was doing this because she was pulling away from my interviewer.

Now, he wasn’t tall, but he was a weightlifter and it showed. He held himself square and rigidly upright. In fact, for a small guy, he took up a whole lot of psychological room. And he was standing right next to our user’s chair. In fact, he was standing in her intimate space, too close for comfort—and it was affecting the interview.

So I got him an armchair and put him in it, which moved him away a bit, put the chair arm between him and the user, and made him a little less intimidating. It moved him from intimate space to social space, a comfortable distance for having a conversation. And our user was able to unwind and work with us a little more naturally.

The concepts of intimate space vs. social space were just two of many that Dr. Olson discussed—the whole talk is worth reviewing. But they give you a simple way to control an interview. Ultimately, you’d like to be in the user’s intimate space and you’d like it to be okay—if you find yourself hanging over your user’s shoulder, close enough to touch, with both of you concentrating on a screen or on a work artifact, hashing out the details of some part of her task—then you know you’re running a good interview. But you can’t just go charging in there.

You also don’t want to start across the table, or across the room. That positioning, all by itself, creates an aloof relationship that won’t help you in finding out about their work. Instead, deliberately position yourself in social space—close enough to talk and look at materials together without being uncomfortable—and close enough to move still closer as needed and as appropriate. And keep your antennae out to gauge your user’s response—everyone has different boundaries and is comfortable with different distances. If they shrink, or turn away, or tense up, back off—and your interview will go better.