“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Observation as skill


I recently had a talk rejected from IxDA’s Interaction 12 | Dublin conference. I’m far from bitter about it. (Mainly because I have a longer talk and a workshop accepted.)

But I kinda liked the idea, or at least the premise behind it. I even had the chance to explore it a little bit on Twitter with John Payne (@jeanphony) of Moment Design.

The talk title was “Don’t Just Observe. Have an Observer Lifestyle” What I meant is that to be a good designer, you need to do more than just take moments to do research, you need to make doing observation of the world around you a skill that you nurture and practice and respect the same way you would any craft skill in your arsenal as a designer.

It is not uncommon for designers to do sketch journals or just take time daily if not multiple times a day to sketch from their imagination or just their world around them. We acknowledge that sketching needs nurturing and practice. Of course, a lot of practice of sketching does just come out of doing the work itself.

But never in all of my years has anyone come to me to tell me or teach me how to observe, let alone that it is a skill at all. I’ve been told that “listening” is a skill and we practice that through interviewing each other as students and what not, but just observing, not so much.

So really for myself about a year ago I have started taking on practicing observation and I wanted to share with y’all how that has worked out.

First, this isn’t about getting things right, or getting to analysis that will lead to design. Like practicing drawing cubes, or doodling, this is for me.

Next, there is picking a topic. Well, about 2 years ago I was introduced to the wonderful world of bike culture in Northern Europe when I was in Copenhagen. I heard about how bicycling was big there, but when I saw it for myself the stark contrast to my own experiences here in the States made my mind explode. So I was inspired. But I didn’t connect the dots yet.

Then when I was in Amsterdam the next year I was ready for it, and re-inspired because first and foremost I discovered how different the two cities were in their interpretation of how to build and live in a bicycling city. It was hear that I started doing two things: 1) photographing patterns (See album of bicycles here; sorry for the lack of labels; but remember this is for me); 2) start relaying my interpretations to others in informal conversations.

This past summer I went back to Copenhagen and this time upped the level of observation to becoming a true participant. Where in Amsterdam I got to rent a bike for a day or two, in Copenhagen I was riding everywhere, daily for close to 3 weeks. It was a whole new level of perspective and it truly taught me the power of ethnography not just as an observational tool, but as a tool requiring contextual embodiment to be truly powerful.

But while this “project” is my ongoing structured version, I’m always observing. I don’t necessarily catalog, but I am always probing people around topics that feel I notice patterns of. I make interpretations of those patterns and I ask the people who have the clearest insights into them.

Favorite moment in Copenhagen was having a Swedish and a Ductch woman next to each other while both explained to me why helmuts were the most important thing in the world (Swede) or why they were a complete waste of time (Dutch). These are the moments that all observers of life should live for.

What do you observe? What are you going to take on observing?

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  • http://jeanphony.tumblr.com jeanphony

    just now getting back to this conversation…

    In a recent ethnography workshop i ran, i asked the attendees to honor the “participant” side of “participant observation” and (if possible) engage in the activity they are seeking to get their users engaged in.

    could be interesting to explore the two sides of this coin “participant lifestyle + observer lifestyle” in a talk or workshop or something… perhaps for EPIC? ;)

  • http://davemalouf.com/ Dave malouf

    I’m in! let’s do this! what’s the next step, ya think?


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