The Reality of Perception

Before we start, I want you to get a piece of paper, and draw a map of the world.

No really, go on. I’ll wait.

Now take a look at the picture you’ve drawn. I’m going to make some guesses about what’s in front of you.

I’m going to guess that the country you’re in, or the country you’re most familiar with, is drawn in the middle of the map. And I’m going to guess you’ve also drawn it far bigger than it really is. So if you’re in the UK, it probably looks like this:

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I’m also going to guess that for those countries you’re less familiar with, they look more like impressionist blobs than their actual shape. With the exception of Italy, which is so memorable that most people get the boot-shape right.

Finally, depending where in the world you are, I’m going to guess you forgot to draw Japan. Or Ireland. Maybe Cuba, or New Zealand. Madagascar almost certainly won’t be on there, despite being twice the size of the UK. Iceland didn’t stand a chance.

picture3

We all see the world from where we stand, closer to our own surroundings, more familiar with our own part of the planet. The further we get from where we are, the hazier our understanding becomes, the more generalised our interpretations.

This is true for our literal view of the world, but it’s also true for view of customers.

We’re all closer to our own businesses, and our own industries, than we are to our customers and what really matters in their lives.

It’s an inescapable trap for even the most customer-focussed of colleagues, leading to an unconscious competence in whatever it is you do. It’s no wonder letters and emails from companies are often confusing and laden with jargon. We’ve forgotten what it’s like not to know the things we now know.

Not only do we all have this innate inside-out view, but we work surprisingly hard to reinforce and maintain our view of the world, too

Here’s a picture of the earth taken by NASA. Notice anything unusual?

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The infamous ‘Blue Marble’ shot is thought to be the most reproduced photo in history.

Taken in 1972, it was the first photograph taken of the whole round Earth and the only one ever snapped by a human being.

But the true camera image is upside-down by earthly standards, showing the South Pole at the top of the globe, because the camera was held by a weightless man who didn’t know down from up. In space, the idea of ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ makes little sense.

Yet when Nasa first published the photo, they were worried about confusing people, so inverted it to align with our expectations and fit with our existing perceptions.

It’s nice reminder that not only do we all see the world from where we stand – our perspectives shaped by the beliefs that have been handed down to us, and the people and places that are closest to us – but that we’re built to find reinforcement of our existing views.

But of course, there are plenty of ways we can challenge our biases, and try to see the world from different perspectives.

In 1907, Dr Julius Neubonner submitted a patent application for a new invention: the pigeon camera.

Originally, he’d planned to use the device to keep track of his own prescription-delivering flock. But his invention was also a huge breakthrough in how we see our world.

The images his pigeons captured (admittedly at strange angles and with feathers covering the lens), were among the very first photos of the Earth from above.

As Steven Johnson says, ‘the trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation, but to get more parts on the table’.

In other words, asking questions, challenging perceptions, and immersing in new perspectives will probably uncover annoyingly inconvenient truths.

But it will also help you understand your customers, yourself, or the world we all live in a bit better, unlocking exciting new possibilities.

If you’re interested (and why wouldn’t you be?) you can find out more about Dr Julius Neubonner’s Pigeon’s here, and the story of the Blue Marble shot here.

Thanks for reading this article, I really hope you enjoyed it. You can subscribe to my monthly update below, and find me in tweet form @johnjsills, in picture form on Instagram @CX_Stories, or in work mode at The Foundation

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