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The following is a dialogue between Steve Portigal and Dan
Soltzberg about the importance of being aware and the advantages of
tapping into your “super-noticing power” in practicing design and
specifically in user research.
Portigal: I'm excited to discuss “noticing” with you.
Ironically, I think its importance in design and innovation is
Soltzberg: It is ironic: people don't notice that
noticing is important! Or that they're already doing it. It's kind
of like breathing—we're not usually that aware of it. It's much
easier to recognize more “outbound” activities like brainstorming,
testing, designing, refining. But noticing is just as
important—it's really where everything begins. There's a funny Zen
saying about that: “Don't just do something, sit there.” It's a
reminder to let yourself take things in as well as output them.
Observations in Bali, 2007. (photos:
Portigal: That reminds me of improv. Newcomers expect
that improv is a very active, concerted effort to be funny. But
what's so stimulating about doing improv is that it's not
(necessarily) about being funny, but that the whole approach of
saying, “Yes, and...,” guides us to notice and act in response to
what the rest of the team is doing. It becomes this collaborative
problem-solving activity that happens to generate a performance,
rather than the typical “stuff from the inside comes out” model of
performance. And the key to making that performance flow is that
everyone is paying close attention each other.
Soltzberg: It's funny you say “notice and act.” To
reference Zen again, one of the maxims of Zen practice is “notice
and allow.” In both practices—improv and meditation—I think giving
yourself permission to “just be,” to receive without transmitting,
makes it possible to really drink in sensory data and to really
listen to other people with an incredible kind of unforced
It reminds me a lot of the approach we take to being with people
when we do fieldwork. In the field, you have to simultaneously
drink all kinds of information in, and at the same time be active
in guiding the interaction. There's this tightrope walk between
action and non-action, ego and non-ego. To move back and forth
gracefully between these different ways of being requires noticing
not just what's going on around you but what's going on inside you
as well. It's one of these things that sounds so simple, but really
takes practice to be good at.
Portigal: Someone showed me a great user research
training activity: circulate through an environment and note
everything you observe, but using only one sense. First, observe
from a distance—say, from on high—so you can't hear what people are
saying. Then sit in the middle of an active zone, but close your
eyes. Students have told me how rapidly one sense fills in for the
other. Of course sometimes that filling in isn't accurate, so it
also illustrates the importance of triangulating observations from
a few different perspective.
Sights in Miami. (photos:
There's an interesting noticing-plus-time version as well. For
example, while traveling through Japan earlier this year, I took
1,400 pictures in two weeks. Maybe a sign or person would catch my
eye or activate my “spider sense.” In many cases, I only knew that
something was up, that there was a point of interest to capture. As
a photographer, I've learned to hear that voice and take the shot
whenever that happens. In a place like Japan at times I wouldn't
know what it was I was documenting or even be able to explain why I
was taking the picture (beyond describing the scene as “cool”). But
once I'd noticed something and photographed it, chances were good
that I'd notice it again—as if that click of opening the shutter
coincided with the creation of a new info-capture zone in my
This process of noticing once and then noticing again is how you
start finding patterns and uncovering themes. For example, in the
throbbing Shibuya skyline we noticed enormous video billboards for
a new album by Ayumi Hamasaki (who we'd obviously never heard of).
Then we saw trucks driving through the streets with billboards on
the side promoting the same album. A few days later we passed the
stadium and there was a huge crowd going to see her in concert. And
along the street were dozens of vans that Ayumi Hamasaki fans had
customized with pictures of her face. It's not that we wouldn't
have walked past all these things, but that the activity of
noticing the first one, and documenting it, meant that I was ready
to notice and document the second, and beyond. So when we saw the
concert crowd and the vans, we were able to connect it: “Oh, this
is the performer that we've been seeing all the ads for.” This
process of trying to figure out what's going on in a new place, of
finding and understanding patterns and themes, is exactly what we
do in our user research.
Soltzberg: Right, you were synthesizing all of those
discrete experiences and creating an “Ayumi Hamasaki bucket.”
Noticing Ayumi Hamasaki all over Tokyo. (photos: Steve Portigal)
Portigal: And what comes out of that is not just that she
exists, but what her existence means and what it tells us about key
aspects of Japanese pop culture. These themes are obviously ripe
for driving design, either as a reservoir of inspiration or evolved
into specific brainstorming questions, such as: “What other
products or services could we offer the J-Pop fan to further
enhance their connections to each other and to the artist?”
Soltzberg: Which really supports what we were talking
about earlier, that it all begins with noticing. There's another
classic Zen concept that everything you need to know and experience
is already happening and present, but you need to get your old ways
of thinking out of the way so you can experience it. Doing
contextual research is like using “super-noticing power” to peel
back those layers of preconception, culture and habit. When you do
that you get to something fundamental and then you've got a really
solid platform for developing new concepts.
Portigal: Super-noticing power really is a strong
cultural idea. The enhanced human with awesome noticing and
synthesizing powers crops up regularly in science fiction (e.g.,
the Mentats in the Dune series or the neurachem from Richard
Soltzberg: Right, sort of like a super-charged version of
William Gibson's Cayce Pollard character in Pattern
Noticing definitely draws on a set of skills that these kinds of
characters embody and amplify, but at the heart of it you have to
genuinely be interested in the world around you and in other
Portigal: Cayce had some of those skills, naturally. I
think a real-life embodiment of someone who naturally celebrates
and observes those details is Miranda July. I won't try to unpack
all of Me and You and Everyone We Know, but there was
something deeply compelling about how that film took the
observation of details and made them dramatic plot points (the
tension as we watched a goldfish forgotten on top of a moving
vehicle) or character traits (a child who passionately accumulates
housewares) or symbolic elements (the clarion call of a wind-blown
signpost). There was a lot that made that film engaging, but so
much of what kept the viewer moving through the narrative seemed to
be in the way July elevated those details.
Stills from Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We
Know (2005). (photos: Phoebe Sudrow)
Soltzberg: It's cool that you bring up July's film. I was
thinking earlier in the discussion about the idea of
“through-lines” in films as a great illustration of how patterns
and themes emerge. In fact, in Repo Man, Harry Dean
Stanton's character makes a comment about this very
phenomenon—something like, “You're thinking about a plate o'
shrimp, and then suddenly someone'll say 'plate o' shrimp' out of
the blue….” And of course, through the whole movie, signs for
“plate o' shrimp” are everywhere.
So given that there are all these patterns and themes around us,
yet being adept at noticing requires practice, how can people
sharpen their noticing “chops?”
Stills of Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez (and plate o'
shrimp!) from Repo Man (1984).
Portigal: I've assigned students to routinely maintain a
noticing log, either a blog (words with pictures) or a Flickr
account (pictures with words). The exercise helps sharpen noticing
skills by giving people permission to simply observe and document.
There's never any requirement to suggest a fix; indeed what they
observe may not be broken in any way. It just has to arouse their
interest, and in documenting it make the details of that interest
explicit. Establishing some discipline for this behavior can be
Soltzberg: Sometimes I do an exercise with workshop
groups, which works in a similar way. Everyone takes a turn
describing something they saw or experienced between the time they
got up and the present moment; something that they haven't talked
about with anyone that day. It could be something unusual or
something really mundane—just a quick description with maybe one or
People are always surprised when they realize how many things
they are actually experiencing but not really noticing. It's such a
simple activity, but people have told me later on that they felt
much more awake after doing it.
Portigal: That's a good place to be solving problems
from. Well, let's get out there and keep noticing.
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