Online Non-Verbal Communication

Posted On: 05/16/13

By: Ilka Kuhagen   

Online qualitative research is often questioned by clients since there seems to be no non-verbal communication for them to observe.

When they are sitting behind a mirror in another country and listening to a simultaneous interpreter they can watch the respondents’ gestures, which helps them better understand their customers. But those non-verbal cues are there – if you know how to “listen for them” online.

How it works

Over the past 10 years online platforms have improved and many new tools are available for qualitative researchers. Additionally, respondents are more savvy and experienced communicating online and have many different ways to express themselves beyond typed letters and text.

An experienced qualitative researcher can use the available tools and techniques to gain insights beyond written words. And the client can watch, without the hassle of challenges such as travelling and different time zones.


While online communication is mainly by text, modern platforms offer options to express emotions and tonality that are familiar to respondents from their social network communications.

  • Fonts: CAPITALs, Bold/Italic/Underlined, Colors for Fonts
  • Emoticons
  • Short cuts and online language forms (np, cu, 2go…)
  • Sound and action words (LOL, arrgh…)
  • Avatars can reveal things about the personality of the respondent
  • Profile pages with detailed respondent description

Interactive platforms allow for finger pointing, bullseyes, picture sorts and even evaluating videos along the journey. Use of projective techniques also is possible in many ways.

The full qualitative toolbox can be used in an online setting as well as offline: analogies, metaphors, color association, collages, sentence completion, storytelling etc.

The life of respondents can unfold and E-ethnographic elements can be included in the research:

  • Voice recordings
  • Uploaded photos and videos
  • Webcam

Webcam groups offer most the advantages of a focus group, as well as the ability to invite respondents who might not come to a central facility for a variety of reasons such as living in remote areas, inhibitions about participating, etc.


Online qualitative research is not just plain text — it can also provide valuable, insight-revealing nonverbal cues. And it can be exciting, creative, diverse and individual  —if you know how to listen for it.