Circle of Visual Interpretation Cards

Visually Interpreting Experience:
Circle of Visual Interpretation Methodology

Dave Wood

Interacción 2014 Tutorial Workshop
11th September 2014, Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, Spain. 

This blog page supports the tutorial workshop.

Circle of Visual Interpretation: Revealing Experience

INTERACTION DESIGNERS… “You might want to believe that users know why they struggle, but they don’t. It’s not what users say. It’s what users do that matters” David Travis, Userfocus, 2014. The Circle of Visual Interpretation gives you, the interaction designer, a creative method to reveal what users think, feel and do through visually interpreting your own inspirational data on user motivations.

The Circle of Visual Interpretation method cards are to be used at the start of interaction designers’ ideation phase to self-generate fresh visual data to inspire and inform your future designs. By using a visual hermeneutic circle* they help you to reveal and understand any experience you need to design for by going beyond what users consciously can describe. Through visual interpretation you stay as close to the users’ own experience as possible by analysing your user research in a deeper interpretive way.

These new qualitative method cards are synthesised from visual communication* techniques and the theories of Peircean semiosis* and hermeneutic phenomenology* into a practical 7-step methodology. With each step user research is coded for individual experiential moments. Each of these moments is visually interpreted as to what the user really thought, felt and did, and composited into a visual sequential narrative.

These narratives are then re-examined to cluster the common moments into general themes. These themes are in turn visually interpreted to understand the general structure of the studied experience. Throughout this process the created visuals become inspirational data that creates dialogues between you (as an interaction designer) and your user research, revealing hidden emotional motivators behind user behaviour.

* see Glossary card. 

How to begin… Tips for the new visual interpreter

You will need user testimonies on the experience you wish to design an new interaction for. These can be written or verbal. Images are needed so an online stock library, Flickr, or Google images can be used. The method lasts as long as you want it to last, and depends on what understanding of an experience you seek. It can be done in your ideation phase in a team or individually.  

Montaging of images can be done digitally using Photoshop or physically using printed out images, glue, paper, etc. The choice is what’s best for you. But to truly visually interpret without personal biasing it is important to follow the method (especially during 2a-c & 6) as by engaging, your understanding of what the individual saw/felt/did will emerge, reinforced by the final montages (4 & 7).

Avoid personal bias 
To avoid bringing your own bias to this method, first brainstorm all that you think you may believe about the experience being investigated. Then you will have clear guidance when interpreting what are your beliefs and thoughts that may bias the process. That way it will be easier to only visually interpret what the person’s testimony is revealing, and not what you think is happening.

Do not go off on a tangent
It important to remain close to the expressions of what the user’s experience is revealing, as the method’s goal is to “uncover commonalities and differences, not private idiosyncratic events or understandings.” [1] Always refer any visual interpretation you make back to each person’s testimony.

[1] BENNER, P. (1994) The Tradition and Skill of Interpretive Phenomenology in Studying Health, Illness, and Caring Practices. In : P. Benner (Ed.), Interpretive Phenomenology: Embodiment, Caring, and Ethics in Heath and Illness. Sage Publications, Inc. p104.

STEP 1: Coding Moments of Experience: The first turn in the interpretive circle

You need to identify within your own user research an experience that has a discernible beginning and end to clearly define the experiential moments that form it.
This prepares your research data for visual interpretation through coding ‘moments’ in the experience, which may be an abstract thing (e.g. listening) or something more tangible (e.g. an action).
•    Now analyse your research to identify each individual’s experiential moments where a specific thing is happening. A moment’s context and quality* will draw your attention to it.
•    When you find an experiential moment code it, using different colours to highlight the moment, its context and quality (see example overleaf).

STEP 2a: The Focus Of The Moment: The second turn in the interpretive circle

For you to visually interpret an experiential moment through the focus* that identifies it.
You will need three components to visually interpret an experiential moment: the focus of the moment, its context and quality. So your first step in visually interpreting a single moment begins with representing the focus of the moment, a specific thing that happens at a point in time.
  • Now from your coded research select a single moment to interpret.
  • Select a ready-made image THAT HAS A DIRECT RELATIONSHIP to the original experience to represent the moment’s focus, or montage one yourself (see example).
  • Once done, in step 3 you will composite this component with (2b) and (2c).  

STEP 2b: The Context Of The Moment: The second turn in the interpretive circle

For you to visually interpret the context in which the experiential moment you’re interpreting takes place.Why…
The context grounds the experiential moment to something that is tangible that happened at a single time and space in the experience. It helps you to picture a particular location, position or space in which the moment happened.
  • Now, from your coded research, visually interpret the moment’s context as a montaged image THAT HAS A DIRECT RELATIONSHIP to the original experience* (see example).
  • Once done, in step 3 you will composite this component with (2a) and (2c).
*This image represents the original context while it must have a direct relationship back to the original context to be useful this doesn’t mean the image has to be the exact context - you can approximate the image while still maintaining the direct relationship.

STEP 2c: The Moment’s Quality: The second turn in the interpretive circle

For you to visually interpret and represent in an image the quality that defines the property of an experiential moment.
The intrinsic quality of a moment is an esoteric thing that shapes the character of how that moment is perceived. By having to visually communicate such an esoteric thing as a quality, the interpreted image will help you interpret the whole moment in a form that visually encapsulates it.
  • Now, from your coded research, visually interpret the quality of the moment by selecting a single image (to communicate this property of the experience) or montage an image yourself (see example overleaf). The use of metaphors or other suggestive associations will help this communication.
  • Once done, in step 3 you will composite this component with (2a) and (2b).

STEP 3: Montaging An Experience: The second turn in the interpretive circle

Now montage the three components (2a-c) you’ve revealed from within your research into a single image that visually communicates each individual experiential moment.
In this image you will see visually communicated an interpretation of a specific moment of when an individual thinks, feels and does; rather than what an individual consciously wants to describe to you.
  • You now need to put the components you’ve interpreted (from 2a-c) together to create a new self-contained image that visually communicates one whole experiential moment (see example).
  • You should choose a consistent image dimension for all your visual interpretations.
  • But you must ensure you have visually interpreted everyone’s moments by repeating steps 2(a-c) and 3 FOR EVERY USER you have in your research data record.

STEP 4: Sequentially Revealing Themes: Completing the second turn in the interpretive circle

Now to complete the first phase of the circle of visual interpretation you will reveal chronologically each person’s experience as a sequential narrative by placing each individual’s interpreted moments into a storyboard.
By ordering the experiential parts into a chronology you can at last see the whole experience. Now ALL the individual experiences can be compared and clustered at once to reveal through the general themes the structure of the overall experience.
  • Now you need to make a sequential narrative storyboard by placing from step 3 each individual’s visually interpreted montaged moments in chronological order (see example overleaf).
  • Ensure you make one storyboard for each individual user and the moments are chronological otherwise the essence of each individual’s experience will be miscommunicated. 

STEP 5: Clustering Themes: The third turn in the interpretive circle

Now compare all the sequential narrative storyboards and cluster together only those themes that are revealed as common to the general experience. You must discard those experiential moments that are too individualistic.
Only those themes that are common across all the individuals’ accounts will lead you to a deeper understanding of the overall structure of what was generally experienced.
  • Now for you to compare themes and cluster those that are common to all you must look at all the sequential narratives (4) you’ve created (see example).
  • From clustering those common themes you will in step 6 distil a general visual language from them you can use to symbolically communicate the general experiential structure.

STEP 6: Revealing The Experiential Structure: The fourth turn in the interpretive circle

Now you will distil a generalised visual language to create single symbolic images for each set of theme clusters. Each symbol represents a part of the whole experience.
You will see that each clustered theme (now represented as a single symbolic image) is one general part of the underlying experiential structure of what was generally thought, felt and done at that moment in the whole general experience.
  • You need to take the important visual elements from each thematic cluster and make them into a new general symbolic image (see example).
  • You must do this for EACH cluster, but you must also ensure that the essence of what was generally thought, felt, done and shared by everyone remains clear by rechecking back to the original research to avoid biasing it.

STEP 7: Final Visual Interpretation

Goal…Now in the final step you will reveal and communicate through visual interpretation, the general experiential structure of the studied experience from beginning to end.
In creating a final sequential image of the symbolic general themes you will reveal a visualisation of deeper motivations of user behaviour that EMERGES THROUGH YOUR ACT OF visually interpreting what a user thought, felt and did.

  • Like in step 4 you will sequentially place each of the key symbolic general themes (6) into a final narrative image with a discernible beginning, middle and end (see example).
  • You must ensure that these symbolic general themes are placed in an order that represents what the method cards have revealed to you about what was experienced, and when. 

Glossary: What is meant in the method by…

ClusteringA comparative step in the interpretive circle to bring together only those core themes that show commonalities in an experience.

Focus (of the Moment)The ‘thing’ within an experiential moment that has a physical context and abstract qualities that identifes and defines it.

Moments (experiential moments)Phenomenologically revealed building blocks within a self-contained experience which has a definable start and end.

Montage (compositing) Combining pictorial elements from various sources and compositing them into a new image i.e. photomontage.

Peircean Semiosis
C.S. Peirce defined 10 classes of semiotic sign that this method uses to visually communicate. Semiosis is a process of sign-action.

Phenomenology (hermeneutic)Philosophical theory and a practical methodology that focuses on revealing hidden meaning through interpretation (hermeneutics).

TestimonyAn account of an individual’s own experience in their own words.

Visual Communication
As a design discipline Visual Communication encompasses Graphic Design, Typography and Illustration.
Visual Hermeneutic Circle
A visualised interpretive method that the philosopher Martin Heidegger devised, which uses reductive circular examinations of parts of a problem against its whole to reveal meaning.

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