Last week we were reading about an app called MySmartEye that crowd sources photos to help the visually impaired. Volunteers receive pictures on their phones and are asked to describe what they see. Blind users can listen to multiple people describe the photo, one person might talk about a tree, another might notice a raccoon sleeping below the tree. It’s all about perception.

We wanted to put this idea to the test. I gave some photos to four of my friends and asked them to describe what they saw. Each person gave drastically different answers, which highlights lessons in differences of perception.

  • O: There is a small, red bug with black dots on it – called a love bug – on a hand.
  • S: A hand with a red and black lady bug on it extended over a concrete floor. The hand is slightly sweaty or greasy with a strange, bent pinky finger.
  • E: It’s a lady bug resting on someone’s finger.
  • J: It is an aerial photograph of a person holding out their hand, palm towards the sky, out over a sidewalk with a small red lady bug on their middle finger.

Is it a love bug or a ladybug? Only one person even bothered to point out that there is a sidewalk in the picture. From this photo alone we can learn that descriptions often lead to misinformation or omission of possibly relevant details.

Let’s move on to the second photograph.

  • O: A mobile candy store, about 15 bags full of various candies placed on a cart. Not the best candy store design wise, however the candy is likely as delicious as the designer candy stores if not more.
  • S: A small red pull-along wagon filled with plastic bags that are filled with candy. They are open with scoops in them and ready to be given out or sold.
  • E: A wheelbarrow filled with pounds of different colored candies and nuts. The colors range from white to black and the sizes range from tiny balls to large nuts.
  • J: A wheelbarrow filled with sacks of treats to be purchased by weight such as jelly rings, nuts, gummy worms and more.

This picture caused our subjects to speculate on the purpose of the content instead of just describing it. Maybe the candy will be sold, maybe the candy is just as delicious as store candy. Rather than describing what is actually in the photo, viewer bias positions the wheelbarrow — or wagon — in a positive or negative light.

  • O: Urban paradise.
  • S: A view of a big city, Chicago or New York most likely, from afar on a bright but cloudy day. The picture looks like it was taken from a park on the water; there are trees, benches, a stone fence, and then water between where the image was taken from and the city skyline.
  • E: Standing on a bridge, peaking through the trees, seeing the view of a city’s downtown/shoreline.
  • J: A picture off the end of a bridge that goes over a body of water. It looks like it is the ocean because it is just off of a sandy beach with clearer water than normal. Off in the distance, over the expanse of water there is a city skyline. It is a sunny scene.

Now our subjects are starting to get the hang of it. They make assumptions in this photo (Is it Chicago’s skyline? Is it the ocean?) but they back up their assumptions with descriptions.

Still, some people notice the city immediately and others describe the beach first.

  • O: Camouflage 101
  • S: An older golden retriever sitting with a kitten.
  • E: A big, golden colored dog and a dark, orange kitten resting on each other.
  • J: Picture of a golden retriever in the background laying on its tummy but with its head poised up. Laying in front of him is a small kitten, similarly seated with a similar golden brown color. They appear to be in a home.

Each sentence in this series gets more descriptive about the image. What one person might think is helpful pales in comparison to the next sentence. Even if you think you’re using imagery in your writing, you’re probably leaving out crucial details that the audience needs to paint a perfect picture.

These examples show how easy it is to skip details, make false assumptions and add bias to your writing. You might think you’re using beautiful imagery, but you could be painting a completely different picture for your audience. And perception is everything.