Using hand gestures can improve your experience of video calls

Signals, such as putting your hand over your heart to signify empathy or thumbs up to show you agree, seem to improve people’s experience of video calls more than typing words or using emojis

Technology



3 August 2022

Giving signs like a thumbs up can make video calls feel better

Josep Suria/Shutterstock

Using simple hand gestures during video calls seems to improve people’s experience of such interactions.

Paul Hills at University College London (UCL) came up with a set of gestures after many video calls during covid-19 lockdowns. “It was born out of my frustration with [online] meetings,” says Hills – who also works as a management consultant – during a video call with New Scientist in which he uses the hand actions.

In online meetings, he began informally testing a range of gestures, including ones borrowed from his work as a volunteer lifeguard and as a mentor to an addiction support group.

Initial positive feedback prompted him to team up with Daniel Richardson at UCL and other colleagues to more formally test the signals.

The researchers arranged a randomised trial involving about 120 undergraduate psychology students at UCL and their seminar leaders who were introduced to nine gestures, which they called Video Meeting Signals.

These include putting your hand over your heart to signify empathy, thumbs up or down to show agreement or disagreement and putting your hand on your head to suggest you want to ask a question. The last of these signals, says Hills, was borrowed from the movies of Laurel and Hardy.

Half of the students were asked to use those signals in seminars done by video call, and a control group had meetings, but didn’t use the signs. Participants reported in surveys afterwards that their group affiliation felt stronger because of their use of gestures. The data suggests a 98 per cent probability that this was because of the gestures, and a 93 per cent probability that they contributed to a better personal experience.

“It seemed to be helping,” says Richardson, talking in the same video call interview as Hills and also using some of the gestures. “It did make these conversations more efficient, people said. They felt like they were achieving their goals sooner.”

The researchers did a second experiment, in which non-students were paid for their time, which also included a third group using emojis instead of gestures. Gestures showed a similar advantage over the control group again, and also over the emoji group.

Hills and Richardson feel that gestures are better than using emojis or typed words in a text chat because of their speed – although they acknowledge that using gestures requires participants to devote their full focus to video call screens, rather than multitasking on video calls, as many people do.

Hills now runs video meeting workshops for businesses on how to use the gesture technique, for a fee.

“It is interesting to see an empirical study examining the efficacy of gesture in this space,” says Matt Wood at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. He points out that the commercialisation of the work means its results should be treated with caution. “The structure of conversation in videoconferencing appears to be important and to these ends, this paper introduces a potentially interesting framework,” he says. “But the use of gesture is not in any one researcher’s – or marketing company’s – hands.”

Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0270399

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