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 under-recognized.
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: Steve Portigal)
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 compassion.
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: Steve Portigal)
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 brain.
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 Morgan's books).
Soltzberg: Right, sort of like a super-charged version of William Gibson's Cayce Pollard character in Pattern Recognition.
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 people.
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 very helpful.
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 two details.
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.