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Sociolinguistics, Design Research, and You-How to Languate Gooder: Part 2

I hope you enjoyed Part 1. Get excited for Part 2 — this one’s all about…

How our experiences, the way we speak, and those of our research participants influence the collection of research data

Do you think your experiences always mirror those of your participants? Probably not.

Let’s explore how we use language to express our identity, subconsciously or consciously, and what that means for research.

What assumptions might you make about someone based on the way they speak? What assumptions might they make about you? I’m talking about accents. A good example of this is the TV show Family Guy.

The happy Family. Image credit:

Lois, the mum, comes from a well-to-do family from New England. How do you as the viewer know this? She doesn’t pronounce her r’s. This ‘non-rhotic’ r sound is a feature in some north-eastern American accents, and was in the past, a feature of how well-to-do people in the northeastern U.S. would typically speak (that’s called a Mid-Atlantic accent if you fancy going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole).

Peter, her husband, does pronounce his r’s, and he’s a bit more working class. The creators of Family Guy are subtly giving us clues about Lois and Peter, because of how we interpret their accents. This pops up in Australian media too…

Two pairs of famous Australian TV characters. They each have different accents because they’re subtly trying to tell us something about the character. (Image credits: TV Tonight,

These perceptions are exactly that — perceptions. Our society chooses to place these values on the different ways people speak.

How do you work with this as a researcher? Let’s look at some concepts from sociolinguistics to find out.

A major function of language is expressing personal identity. Through subconsciously or consciously choosing to speak a certain way, you can convey to the person listening who you are, or who you want to be.

When I delivered this as a talk at Design Research Australia, I probably sounded a little more “Melburnian” compared to when I speak with my regional Victorian parents or cousins — and this is subconscious. I want to be able to blend in with my family more. So, my accent changes when I speak with them — it sounds more broad.

When I speak with my researcher colleague at SEEK, who is in Kuala Lumpur, I try to avoid using too much Australian slang, and slow down a bit to ensure they understand me. Similarly, my KL counterpart avoided using the Malaysian English slang term ‘lah’ — until she found out my partner’s family is Malaysian Chinese and use this all the time! We’re both adapting to each other’s way of speaking.

So we know language helps us express identity, and we also know that we may change how we use language, in order to be perceived in a certain way. What else do we do? How do we apply this to design research?

Changing our language use according to the social context is known as situational code switching. The different codes you might use depending on the situation are called styles.

You can use this code-switching to meet your research participant where they are, without mockery or mimicry. You must adapt to them. Like this:

  1. Become aware of how you sound, and the words you use. Maybe you *are* starting to think about this now you’re reading this article.
  2. Depending on who your participant is, maybe you start to broaden your vowels ever so slightly. Maybe you start to use more of the words they use to describe things. Mirror the way they pronounce things, just a little, to break down those assumptions and establish some trust.
  3. Once you get a ‘feel’ for who the person is, you can adapt your language to suit them. Tap into your own experiences to find some common ground.

This is a tricky balance to strike — you don’t want to become another person entirely! All you’re doing is meeting the participant where they are.

We’ve covered how we use language to express identity, and how we can use that to endear research participants to us. But wait, there’s more!

Aside from communicating ideas, we also use language to establish a comfortable relationship with other people. It can be as simple as saying ‘Morning’ to someone you pass on the street, or, in Japanese, saying ‘Itadakimasu!’ before you eat.

Neither of these convey ideas, but they serve to unite us over a common experience — building rapport. This is called ‘phatic communication’.

Think about starting a research session. Perhaps you ask the participant how their day was, or joke about needing another coffee (I do this a lot). You may resort to commenting on the weather. You’re using these things to establish a bit of rapport with your participant before you’ve commenced the session.

Jokes about coffee — making research participants comfortable since 1995. (Image credit:

You may be thinking to yourself that all of this sounds a bit inauthentic. And you’re not wrong — sometimes, we run the risk of taking these things too far. What you want to avoid doing is stereotyping.

Stereotyping in a linguistic context involves contrasting two cultures or groups on the basis of a single dimension, and focusing on that as a problem for communication. Stereotyping can limit our understanding of human behaviour and can lead to miscommunication and misguided assumptions.

In your research sessions, focus very much on the individual who is your research participant. You as the researcher should be responding to them. This nicely segues us into the last sociolinguistic concept for Part 2 — status and contextual identity.

Status is the position a person holds in the social structure of a community or space. Roles are the conventional behaviours that society expects someone to adopt when they hold a particular status.

Contextual identity refers to how language use correlates with the characteristics of the context in which it is used.

As the researcher, you are likely expected to behave and speak in a certain way by the participant. There’s a power dynamic at play here. The setting of the research session is also artificial, and you need to break this down by placing yourself at the same or a lower status than the research participant.

Who are you in the research ‘room’? Who has the power here? If you need to, give your participant the power by adapting your status. Of course, that depends on how elite you think you are in comparison!

The Who have been asking this question for years. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Be deliberate about the words you use, and the way you sound. Again, try to fit in with your participant’s world — don’t make them feel as if they have to fit in with your world.

So, what did you think?

That it’s for Part 2! Leave your comments below — I’m curious to understand any thoughts you had while reading this.

Part 3 is about how we as a design research community talk about what we do — and how we may exclude others through language we use.




At SEEK we’ve created a community of valued, talented, diverse individuals that really know their stuff. Enjoy our Product & Technology insights…

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Caylie Panuccio

Caylie Panuccio

UX Researcher in Melbourne, Australia. Ponders UX research technique, practice building, and language stuff.

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