Observation vs Interpretation


    To understand the difference between stating what you see and interpreting it through your personal lens.


    20-30 min

    Group Size

    Whole Class or small groups

    WHAT is it?

    This is a quick exercise to teach designers to understand how personal biases and experiences can affect how they see a given situation, and help them develop the skills to view a situation through a more objective lens.

    Why Teach it?

    It is important to identify one’s own world lens so that it may be replaced by the user’s lens to effectively design Ideas for them.

    How to teach it?

    To help individuals understand the difference between observation and interpretation it is helpful to guide them through an activity that clearly shows how they interpret a situation while observing. Discuss the difference between a subjective and objective view. An objective observation is something that viewing the scene will see in the same way and is true. For example: in the picture on the right the person wearing yellow is holding a long pole. A subjective interpretation is something that can be seen differently by different observers. For example some observers may say that she is putting up laundry, others may say she is taking it down, still others may say that she is showing her friend a new pole twirling trick that she learned. There is no way to know which interpretation is true without talking to the person in yellow.

    There are a number of different ways to teach this: one is to show students a picture and ask them what is going on in the picture, then as a group discuss the wide variety of things that may be going on. Observation vs Interpretation can also be taught by having people observe someone and then interview them about what they observed. This enables the observer to differentiate between what they observed and what they interpreted about the person they interview.

    Sample Lesson (30 min)

    Materials: Paper, Pencil, handout of a scene (the picture included in this section works quite well).

    Introduction (5 min)
    Ask students: ‘Why do we care about differentiating between an Observation and an Interpretation?’
    Students may volunteer many possible reasons. After student responses have been posted on the wall, share these three key reasons:

    a. This practice of differentiation reveals to us our world view and personal lens through which we see the world; it enables us to understand our own actions and biases.

    b. Identification of one’s personal lens enables the substitution of another’s world lens and enables us to design for them.

    c. We avoid the tendency of jumping to one Idea (ours) and instead identify a need which may be met through a wide range of Ideas.

    Project the image provided in the Student Version or pass out handouts. Create a capture board with four
    quandrants (See handout at the end of the lesson for example): Observation, Interpretation, Needs, Ideas. Capture student responses either by scribing them by quadrant or have students write responses on post-it notes to post by quadrant.

    Discuss Observations (5 min)
    Prompt the students with: ‘At a most basic description level, what do you observe is happening in the
    image?’ Answers like ‘a low-income woman in a third world country is forced to hang her laundry outside
    because she has no clothes dryer’ mean students are Interpreting instead of merely Observing.

    Help students to arrive at a more literal description like: ‘A woman is hanging clothing outside using a
    long pole.’

    Discuss Interpretations (5 min)
    Then ask students for Interpretations for WHY she is doing this. What MOTIVATIONS does she have for
    this behavior? Possible interpretations might be: ‘She has no space to dry clothing inside’ or ‘She likes the
    scent of laundry dried in the sun’ or ‘She enjoys showing off her best clothing to her neighbors.’

    To really push students, ask if we can be sure she is doing laundry? If it is not laundry, what else could be
    Interpretations for what she is doing? Perhaps ‘this common space to hang her clothing and she is
    therefore selecting clothing to wear that day.’

    Remind students that only by speaking with her and spending time in her context can we confirm which
    interpretation is correct.

    Discussing Needs (5 min)
    Ask students what she might need based on the Interpretations suggested. One might respond: ‘An electric
    clothes dryer.’ If so, help the students see that this is only one possible Idea for a need that she expresses.
    Suggest a broader need instead like ‘to dry her clothing.’ To respond to some of the earlier Interpretations:

    Interpretation: ‘She has no space to dry clothing inside’

    Need: ‘To dry clothes in a space-efficient way’

    Interpretation: ‘She likes the scent of laundry dried in the sun’

    Need: ‘Dry and nice-smelling clothes’

    Interpretation: ‘She enjoys showing off her best clothing to her neighbors.’

    Need: ‘To demonstrate her status to others’

    Students may also come up with additional Needs with the prompt to consider what looks difficult about
    the situation. Perhaps it looks like the pole approach requires strength maybe so she needs ‘To dry her
    clothing in a less effortful way’ or it looks time-intensive so she might need ‘A way to dry her clothing in a
    more efficient way.’

    Discuss Ideas (5 min)
    Look back at the Needs expressed and ask students to come up with one or more Ideas that would meet
    that need.
    Need: ‘To dry her clothing in a less effortful way’
    Idea: ‘Electric pulley system where she can load clothing at street level’
    Need: ‘Dry and nice-smelling clothes’
    Idea: ‘A brand of clothing with a quick-drying and sun-scented property’
    Need: ‘To dry clothes in a space-efficient way’
    Idea: ‘A communal drying room where she and her neighbors rotate use’

    Use the following handout to record ideas

    Download file "Slide1.png"

    Wrap up discussion (5 min)
    Ask students a selection of the following questions to assess what they have learned:

    1. What did you learn about yourself?

    2. How will you apply what you learned in this lesson for future observations?

    3. What do you need to do to fully understand a situation?

    4. What is the difference between observation and interpretation?

    Additional Pictures for Observation vs Interpretation

    Download file "Additional Pictures.ppt"


    Back to Curriculum Home Page


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