What We See ≠ What We Think It Means: An Observation Exercise

An exercise for understanding the difference between observation and the interpretation of what we’ve observed.

As we start meeting in-person or in hybrid work spaces, I have started to review some of my favorite in-person workshops, which brings me back to this observation exercise.

Observation is a research method that teams will lump into their research bag of methods. Yet, when teaching observation to new teams or designers, what is shared as an observation often borders on a judgment imbued with that individual’s biases or premature conclusions.

We created the exercise below as an attempt to distinguish between observation and the inferences or interpretation of that observation.

Here is how it works:
The following instructions assume an in-person setting, however it can be adapted to remote or hybrid workshops.

  1. Have participants take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left hand side of the line, ask participants to title it “what I see” then on the right hand side, to write “what I think this means.”

  2. Ask for a volunteer to come with you into a space where the group cannot see you. Whisper the following instructions to the volunteer: “Go back to the group, sit in a chair, place your arms at 90 degrees, and round the hands slightly and move your fingers up and down irregularly.”

Note: When instructing the volunteer, the key is not expressing “as if you’re going to type,” but to actually state the observable behavior. You could also hand the instructions to the volunteer on a piece of paper, however, I like the drama it creates with the whispering.

  1. When the volunteer and the facilitator return to the group, the volunteer takes a seat in front of the group and starts to act. The group is asked to write down what they see, and what they think this means. After 7 seconds, whisper to the volunteer a few more tasks like, move your right toes up to the sky and then back down to the floor a few times.

  2. After applauding the volunteer, ask the participants to first share what they saw. “Fingers moving!” “Foot tapping.” Piano playing.” “No, computer typing.”

For the last two suggestions, ask: “Is this what you saw?”

After asking, “is this what you saw?” some of the participants will often share, “it’s not playing the piano, it’s moving fingers from side to side,” “it’s moving the foot,” and they will start to say the behaviors or actions that they observed. At this point, switch to asking what this means. People will often share “playing the piano” or “it means they are working on the computer.”

Here, participants start to recognize the difference between their inference of the data and the data itself. The data is the behaviors (moving the foot up and down, moving the fingers irregularly, arms at 90 degrees), the inferences are how they interpret the data (piano playing, typing, etc).

  1. Participants then pair up and take turns being the observer and then being observed. Note: the one being observed in the pair is allowed to use 5 words maximum (if they choose to use any language at all).

  2. From there, have a conversation about what one looks for when doing field research and conducting observations. Looking for what behaviors researchers may see and then also seeking the conscious separation of what one may think this means. Even more importantly, in our teams of researchers, it is necessary to discuss how our biases influence the inferences we make.

Note on the Debrief:
Every time in the debrief participants ask what I tell the volunteer thinking that I instructed typing or piano playing. By telling the volunteer the observable behavior it reinforces how much we invent through our inference.

Time: Timings are intentionally not included. As a facilitator try to sense when it’s time to switch. In general, this exercise can take at least 10 minutes.

Are there exercises that you’ve started to turn back toward? That you’ve adapted for in person, remote or hybrid workshop settings?