Consumer Orientation VIEWS Fall 2019

Consumer Orientation

Colleen Jones, MA, NIC

Consumer Orientation

“I’m your interpreter today.” 

Have you ever thought about how much information is implied in this statement?

For some consumers, this simple introduction immediately conjures a clear understanding of who they will be interacting with, what languages will be used, and what the communication process will look like. For others, this is just the beginning of what can be a very confusing process. 

Interpreting for consumers who never really “get it” can be incredibly dissatisfying. The interpreter might be producing their best work, but the consumers never seem to connect, the conversation does not flow naturally, and the interpreter leaves the job doubting their effectiveness. 

Education for consumers, referred to as orientation to the interpreted interaction or consumer orientation (term originally coined in Jones, 2017), is an important part of the consumers’ experience. Effective orientation can reduce confusion, distraction, and negative perceptions. It can also contribute to clear communication and better outcomes for the hearing consumer, the Deaf consumer, and the interpreter. While consumer orientation is already conducted well by many interpreters, consumers, and allies, the interpreting field has not established best practices for consumer orientation. This article explores the important role that consumer orientation plays in the interpreted interaction, reasons interpreters might hesitate to orient consumers, and what effective orientation could look like. 

Lack of Consumer Orientation Has a Negative Impact on Consumers 

My 2017 study examined responses from 357 hearing people who were not fluent in sign language. Participants were asked several questions about their impression of a Deaf person after watching his presentation in sign language while listening to an off-screen interpreter render the message in spoken English (Jones, 2017). The video did not provide any consumer orientation to the interpreted interaction, and 44% of participants indicated they were confused and/or distracted by the use of sign language and the interpreting process (p. 58). Additionally, those who were confused or distracted had a more negative impression of the Deaf presenter, ranking him lower-than-average in ten soft skill categories—professionalism, friendliness, knowledgeability, confidence, intelligence, communication skills, trustworthiness, competency, authoritativeness, and likability (p. 59). 

While further research is needed, these results appear to confirm what interpreting practitioners and experienced consumers know to be true: that consumers who are confused or distracted by the interpreting process will ultimately see the Deaf person in a more negative light than if they clearly understood what to expect from an interpreted interaction. Previous research similarly suggests that many hearing consumers do not understand the interpreter’s relationship with the Deaf consumer, the process of interpreting, or how to effectively work with interpreters (see, for example, Hsieh, 2010; Kredens, 2017; Metzger, 1999). In one instance, Leeds surveyed medical professionals who worked regularly with highly qualified sign language interpreters in the U.K. An overwhelming number of these hearing consumers believed that the interpreter was a friend, social worker, or caretaker of the Deaf consumer (2009, as cited in Llewellyn-Jones & Lee, 2014). These findings correspond with my research, in which survey participants’ level of experience working with interpreters had very little effect on their indicated feelings of confusion and/or distraction, suggesting that even experienced consumers may benefit from orientation to the interpreted interactions (Jones, 2017, p.52). 

Interpreter Ethics and the Myth of Invisibility

If consumer orientation is so important, why has the interpreting field not discussed this in greater depth and developed best practices? One possible reason is that educating consumers directly conflicts with many interpreters who attempt to be a non-participant in the interaction. While the interpreting field has moved through multiple approaches to our work over the decades (Witter-Merithew, 1999), vestiges of the machine model still exist. With the best of intentions, many interpreters try to fade into the background and avoid any behavior that could be construed as Deaf disempowerment (as defined by Suggs, 2012). “Just pretend I’m not here,” often becomes the shorthand explanation of how to engage with a fellow consumer while utilizing the services of an interpreter. The Code of Professional Conduct can also be interpreted to encourage invisibility: Tenet 2.5 states that interpreters shall “refrain from providing counsel, advice, and personal opinions,” and Tenet 3.5 says interpreters should “conduct and present themselves in an unobtrusive manner” (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 2005, p. 3). 

Researchers have written persuasively about the myth of invisibility and its impact on consumers, interpreting practitioners, and the interpreted message (see, for example, Dean & Pollard, 2005; Llewellyn-Jones & Lee, 2014; and Witter-Merithew, Swabey, & Nicodemus, 2011). In the context of consumer orientation, the concept of invisibility is relevant because interpreters may refrain from providing important information about the interpreting process in an effort to avoid inserting themselves into the interaction. This is not to say that the responsibility of orientation is always on the interpreter, but to posit that the persistence of the machine model of interpreting and the expectation that interpreters are not to take part in any interactions with consumers may be barriers to the development of best practices for consumer orientation. 

The FEI Model for Consumer Orientation

Consumer orientation is defined as “communication with one or more consumers with the goal of supporting their understanding of the interaction” (Jones, 2017, p. 4). This definition is expanded upon and given more clear application with the addition of the Function, Expectations, and Inclusion (FEI) model for consumer orientation (Jones, 2019). This model is based on the idea that “effective consumer orientation includes three elements: Function of the interpreter, Expectations for what the interaction will be like, and Inclusion for all parties (FEI). Depending on the setting and the consumer, each element may be touched on briefly or may be expanded upon in more depth. Regardless of whether the orientation to the interpreted interaction takes ten seconds or ten minutes, these three elements can be included” (para. 14). 

While not every aspect of how to work with interpreters will fit these labels perfectly, it is beneficial to consider orientation using the three categories: 

Function: How will the interpreter function in the context of this interaction? Examples: 

  • I am the interpreter for your meeting with John today. 

  • I will be standing to the side of the stage, interpreting your presentation into American Sign Language. 

  • When you speak, I will listen to what you are saying then interpret it into American Sign Language. When the Deaf person makes a comment, they will sign it in ASL and I will watch what they are saying and then interpret it into English so you can understand them. 

  • Feel free to speak as you naturally would. If any clarification is needed for the interpreting process or if we need to make adjustments to better facilitate communication, I will let you know. 

  • There are two interpreters today and we will be working as a team. One of us will be interpreting the message and the other will be monitoring for accuracy and ready to support when needed. 

Expectations: What can the consumer expect when working with an interpreter? How might this experience differ from a typical monolingual interaction? Examples: 

  • You might notice a bit of a pause while I am processing the message and then interpreting it. 

  • I will be standing a bit behind you so the Deaf person can make eye contact with you and see me at the same time. My voice will be behind you, but the person interacting with you is in front of you. 

  • The two interpreters will be switching every fifteen to twenty minutes. 

Inclusion: What can be done to ensure the interaction is inclusive and satisfactory for everyone? 


  • I can only interpret for one person at a time, so if there is cross-talk or a side conversation, some people will miss out on it because it has not been interpreted. As the chairperson, can you pay attention to turn-taking and make sure people aren’t talking on top of each other? 

  • Even though my voice will be coming from behind you, go ahead and look at the Deaf person when they are signing to you. It is respectful and you will be able to pick up on their facial expressions and body language. 

  • Instead of talking to me, go ahead and speak directly to the Deaf person and use first person language. You don’t have to say, “Ask her if she’s going to the meeting,” you can just say, “Are you going to the meeting?” (Jones, 2019, para. 15-18). 

Options for Effective Orientation

Just like everything related to interpreting, there is no one correct approach for consumer orientation. Effective orientation could be formal or informal, written or verbal, and could occur once or multiple times. Real-world application will depend on a myriad of factors, including setting, participants, power dynamics, and timing. Also, it is important to emphasize that while most of this article and the relevant research is focused on gaps in the understanding of hearing consumers, Deaf consumers may sometimes need orientation as well. 

There are many scenarios where it may be appropriate for the interpreter to take on the task of conducting orientation, but there are also many situations where this might not be the case. People who could conduct orientation include (but are not limited to): 

  • Interpreter 

  • Deaf consumer 

  • Hearing consumer 

  • Team interpreter 

  • Agency or booking entity 

  • Supervisor, group leader, or colleague of the consumer  

The decision of who should take responsibility for orientation will depend on community discussions as well as individual negotiations that are context specific. 

Many people envision orientation for an interaction occurring upon arrival, in conjunction with the interpreter(s) introducing themselves. While this is often the first opportunity for face-to-face interaction with the consumer, it is not necessarily the first opportunity for orientation. As an alternative, Jones (2018) suggests that the party who is responsible for orientation might consider conducting orientation before or after the interpreted interaction. Orientation that occurs prior to the event could consist of information based on the FEI model, communicated via email or a brochure that is included in an information packet. Orientation after the event might be a quick check-in about how things went, or a follow-up conversation based on previously shared information. It may be appropriate for the interpreter or consumer to communicate with the hiring entity, manager, or another third party and ask them to conduct orientation. It is also worth discussing how orientation may be conducted during the interaction, whether by using simple cues or pausing the conversation in order to share information that will improve communication. 


Consumer orientation might be a new term in the literature, but the concept of sharing information is intuitive and directly related to the work of interpreting. Many interpreters, consumers, and allies are already engaging in orientation that is effective and beneficial for all parties involved in the interpreted interaction. The interpreting field and our communities of practice would benefit from an examination of existing approaches, further research, intentional discussions, and the development of best practices for consumer orientation. 


Dean, R. K., & Pollard Jr., R. Q. (2005). Consumers and service effectiveness in interpreting work: A practice profession perspective. In M. Marschark, R. Peterson, & E. A. Winston (Eds.), Sign language interpreting and interpreter education: Directions for research and practice (pp. 259-282). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 

Hsieh, E. (2010). Provider–interpreter collaboration in bilingual health care: Competitions of control over interpreter-mediated interactions. Patient Education and Counseling, 78(2), 154-159. 

Jones, C. (2017). Perception in American Sign Language interpreted interactions: Gender bias and consumer orientation (Master’s Thesis). Western Oregon University, Monmouth, Oregon. 

Jones, C. (2018, November). Perception in ASL Interpreted Interactions: Consumer Orientation. Paper presented at the Conference of Interpreter Trainers, Salt Lake City, UT. 

Jones, C. (2019). Orientation to the interpreted interaction. In E. Maroney, A. R. Smith, S. Hewlett, E. Trine, and V. Darden (eds.), Integrated and open interpreter education: The open educational resource reader and workbook for interpreters. Monmouth, OR: Western Oregon University. 

Kredens, K. (2017). Conflict or convergence? Interpreters’ and police officers’ perceptions of the role of the public service interpreter. Language and Law, 3(2), 65-77. 

Llewellyn-Jones, P., & Lee, R. G. (2014). Redefining the role of the community interpreter: The concept of role-space. United Kingdom: SLI Press. 

Metzger, M. (1999). Sign language interpreting: Deconstructing the myth of neutrality. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press. 

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. (2005). NAD-RID code of professional conduct. Retrieved from 

Suggs, T. (2012). Deaf disempowerment and today’s interpreter (online presentation). Retrieved from interpreter/ 

Witter-Merithew, A. (1999). From benevolent care-taker to ally: The evolving role of sign language interpreters in the United States of America. Gebärdensprachdolmetschen: Dokumentation der Magdeburger Fachtagung (Theorie und Praxis 4), Hamburg: Verl hörgeschädigte kinder. 55-64. 

Witter-Merithew, A., Swabey, L., & Nicodemus, B. (2011). Establishing presence and role transparency in healthcare interpreting: a pedagogical approach for developing effective practice. Rivista di psicolinguistica applicata, 11(3), 79-94. 

Colleen Jones, MA, NIC, is a nationally certified interpreter and presenter from Seattle, Washington. She holds undergraduate degrees from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and Seattle Central Community College, and a master’s degree from Western Oregon University. Colleen’s interpreting work is focused on medical, business, and DeafBlind settings, and she has published research on the topics of gender bias and consumer orientation. In her spare time Colleen enjoys the outdoors, developing her green thumb, and travel. She is currently working on a bucket list of islands to visit across the world. For more information on consumer orientation and Colleen’s research and publications, please visit

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