Research & Evaluation

Visitor Interpretations of Images 2008 Front End Evaluation

Report date: July, 2008



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General Description: 

This front-end study was conducted to gauge the visiting public’s interpretation of scientific images of the nanoscale.

Major Findings: 

• Most (74%) of the visitors wanted to know what the image is of. To a lesser degree, visitors were also interested in how the subject fits into the larger world, in the imaging technology that was used, and in the characteristics, or traits, of the sample (e.g. is it metallic?).
• Without any additional image information, visitors reported recognizing familiar objects in the image (63% of the visitors), and to a lesser extent talked about the shapes and patterns, the colors, and the instruments they think were used to create the image. We speculate that this tendency to look for the familiar may lead to misinterpretations particularly when a nanoscale sample superficially resembles a more familiar macroscale object.
• Most visitors (72%) guessed that the subject of the STM, AFM or SEM was in the micro or smaller scale. However, visitors were more likely to think that the quantum corral (the STM image) is on the macroscale as compared to the other images.
• Visitors used a number of clues to (mis)inform their size estimates of the subjects in these scientific images. Visitors based their guesses on: the accompanying size and scale information, the apparent similarity to a more familiar object, the possible instruments used to capture the image, and the shape and patterns they see.
• More (73%) visitors readily interpreted magnification (e.g. 20,000x) than size units such as nm (34%) or μm (10%).
• False color was assigned different meanings, the most common (34%) being temperature, even though color was never intended to denote temperature in any of the images.
• Most (73%) visitors reported never having seen images similar to the ones we showed them in this study, further underscoring the need for interpretative supports.

Type of product(s) studied: 

  • Media

Method(s) of data collection: 

  • interviews


Joyce Ma

Associated product(s): 



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