Are you sitting comfortably? What your body language reveals about your work

If your head tilts to the side when you work you’re displaying uncertainty. If your chin’s up you’re on to a really good idea. Find out what the cues you give to the outside world say about you – and whether your employer’s watching you

You’re at work, it’s Friday afternoon, and the weekend feels like it’s already here.

Productivity is low, showing no signs of improving… roll on five o’clock.

We can all relate to that. I’m sure nobody is watching and as long as you produce a sound design, on budget come deadline day, I doubt anyone will care.

But if someone was watching – what would they see?

My final degree project (BEng in Mechanical Engineering at Heriot Watt) was a study into psychological body language and what it can tell us about the decisions we make during the engineering design process.

I wanted to go further than the assumption that our performance will only be judged on the work we produce.

If you’re presented with a brief and a deadline and you produce a final design that’s innovative, fits to a tight specification and is on time, then as a design engineer you’ve done your job. Haven’t you? Do the bits in between really matter? Or the bits in between the bits in between?

I’m not talking about concept designs or testing and analysis; they’re important parts of the design process.

I’m talking about cognitive processes: the decision-making process and the rationale behind the ideas and decisions that have made up the final design.

If any aspects of the final design were the result of poor decisions made when a designer was lacking confidence or had a low level of interest in the task, it would be important to know.

These bits in between really do matter, and could return tangible advantages for design engineering.

Such mental states can be identified by studying the overt behaviour and body language of designers. (Although defining what each behaviour means can be a matter of interpretation.)

Measuring our internal state also tells us some interesting things: rises in body temperature, heart rate and even the level of electrical activity in our skin cells can indicate when a person feels a high level of pressure or scrutiny.

Measuring these changes, internal and external, is like putting a lie detector to work.

Through observing subjects at work and monitoring the changes they undergo at specific design stages it’s possible to pinpoint times when confidence or interest is particularly high. Many other mental states and behavioural influences that would affect decision making can also be detected.

At these times, the design could be suffering.

Of course, we all respond individually to different stimuli. For example, a professional of twenty years experience may show a lack of interest at more routine points during CAD drafting – but the task has become second nature and an apparent lack of interest may be excused. Whereas a fresh graduate displaying much the same body language cues could be making several simple mistakes or bad decisions.

Identifying any problems early is invaluable to any product development process. The cost implications of allowing poor designs to go into production are obviously huge. So it isn’t unrealistic for a company to exhaust all of the available safeguards against poor aspects of design – including the psychoanalysis of its design team.  

However, this sort of scrutiny could raise questions of human rights, not to mention the difficulty of continuous monitoring.

Maja Pantic, from Imperial College, London is working on automatic recognition of non-verbal cues and proposes a more active role for computers and machines. If, for example, you are interacting with a software package and trying to find some function or item, the computer could detect puzzlement and proactively highlight items which may be of interest.

“There are typical patterns of gaze shifting and facial expression that can detect puzzlement,” says Pantic.

Whatever the future of this kind of technology, it is being researched and developed now. It may well become just another way for employers to ensure they get the most out of their employees and an accepted part of the way we work. I’d much rather it was used to make computers more helpful, as in Pantic’s research.

I sincerely hope it’s not too much to ask that we are allowed, at least, to keep our thoughts to ourselves.

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