Sunday, May 24, 2009

Levels of looking

A few weeks ago I facilitated a Visual Explorer session for a social services agency for mentally disabled children and adults in the Hudson Valley. A friend is the IT director at the agency, and asked me to help run a communication session for the IT group and its internal clients.

This was the first time in several years that I've done a true, extended VE session with enough time and mandate to set it up and introduce it properly. There were 10 attendees, half from IT and half from other parts of the agency. We did two rounds, the first on the question "What's the place of IT in the organization?" and the second, after discussion, debrief, and a break, on "How can IT best support the organization (and vice versa)?" We spent about 2.5 hours in all.

In the first round, the small groups got engaged quickly and the discussions were lively. Even people who hung back at first got excited as it went on. One of the IT guys was at first reluctant to engage and didn't even pick a picture during the browsing period. But after the first two people in his small group took their turns, he jumped up and grabbed a picture, and ended up giving one of the more evocative and insightful descriptions.

In both large group rounds, the discussion was engaged and (as far as I could tell as an outsider) did enable people to talk in ways they normally don't to each other. A number of themes emerged, such as the separation between the different groups, surprise by non-IT people about how the IT people felt about their work and their relationships with the rest of the agency, how to better communicate about the goals and benefits of IT projects and deal with resistance to change by helping people to see what they could get out of the new capabilities, etc. Afterwards, a number of the people said that it had been valuable and that the pictures enabled them to have a better and deeper dialogue with each other.

I noticed a paradox in the session, which I've seen before. It involves differing levels of looking at and talking about what people see in a picture, and how the picture relates to their situation and concerns. It's relatively easy to get people to talk about what they see in a VE image on the level of what the picture "says", what they think the story of the picture is. This is a wonderful human capability -- something a computer could never do (e.g. "these people are happy because they just won a race", "nothing's really clear, the racers and the audience can't see each other well, there's such a frenetic pace" etc.). But the paradox is that it's not so easy to get people to go to the next level, to really look at and talk about the actual 'physical' details in the picture -- to engage with and talk about what they really see rather than the story or ideas that are suggested to them.

In other words, people relate almost instantly to what they see as the "story" of the picture, suggested by the images, facial expressions, etc. -- the visual detail that strikes us on a sub-verbal level, all the time, in conversations with others (for example, the way we "read" other people's moods and interpret what that might mean for us, as we scan their faces or listen to their voices in a meeting).

But to go farther -- to be able to say exactly what visual and aural nuances might have given us this impression (the crease of a brow, the elevated pitch of part of a spoken sentence) takes an extra effort and does not come readily for most people. I often think of what I had to learn in film classes in college -- not to just let a film "wash over" me in a tide of impressions and effects, but rather to pay close attention so I could see what techniques the filmmaker used to give me those impressions -- the small details of editing, sound, lighting, composition, color, and many others. This can lead to a deeper level of insight and articulation.

As the practitioner in the VE session I'm describing here, I tried to inculcate this to some extent. As people were working in the small groups, I walked around and made a few suggestions, such as pointing out specific visual details and getting the groups to look at them, when it was apparent that the group was in 'story' mode and could benefit from taking a closer look. That did seem to shake things loose a bit and move the conversation to a more engaged level.

This same dynamic occurs with other forms of collaborative media. Getting people to look closely and talk about what they see requires a level of effort -- for both participants and practitioners -- beyond what is easiest to do. The "story" level is also a good thing and generates dialogue that takes people out of their normal way of relating, but going farther is where a lot of the potential lies.


Steve Marshall said...

Interesting observations, Al.

I find a parallel here with some of my work; there is a significant difference between understanding a piece of visual art as a means of expression and then shifting gears to use it as a point of inquiry.

I find that the first response, as you say, comes naturally. Using imagery to inquire into the way our thought is working needs quite a bit of sign-posting and careful set-up.

chuck said...

I commented and reposted this on the Visual Explorer blog at . Looking forward to updates from the agency, as they adopt VE as a shared tool.