See For Yourself: About the Power of Observing

There is only one way to better understand people and anticipate how they behave: observe.

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At our core, interaction designers are anthropologists. We design interactions between people and people, and people and things. There is only one way to better understand people and better anticipate how they behave: observe.

Be the Seer

The user experience profession is pretty weird. Some argue it isn’t a profession at all because you don’t need to belong to any associations or hold any certifications in order to call yourself a practitioner. We’re an occupation or concentration, or maybe we’re just a mindset.

I see us at an intersection, as a liaison. We combine principles of design, psychology, statistics and computer science to bring humanity into technology. Whether your day to day activities include drawing wireframes or interviewing prospective users or conducting usability tests, we are ultimately advocates for change — and in order to change the world, you have to see the world as it really is.

Conferences are a tremendous place to learn new techniques, hear new ideas, and meet new people who will inspire you on a regular basis. Books can give you a foundation, introduce you to a new methodology, and become a reference point for your work. Blogs help you stay current, separate the wheat from the chaff, and give you insight into the minds of other practitioners. All of these things develop your mind, but none develop your gut.

Being formally educated is nice, and being self-educated is commendable, but knowledge can only carry you so far. To really be great at our jobs, we need razor sharp instinct.

Look

Observe everywhere and everything. Tune your eyes and ears to the world around you. Walk the streets for hours. Look at signs and posters and traffic lights. Watch people cross the street and navigate the sidewalk and go in and out of stores. Map their movements. Chronicle their habits. Notice their hesitations. Count the points of interaction.

Ride the subway. Now watch people when they’re sitting, when they’re standing. How do they tune people out? How do they minimize their space? How do they relax their bodies? And what are the interaction points there? The handrail, the route maps, the doors. Watch how people move through the space. Differentiate the locals from the tourists. Find the patterns. See the tensions.

Go to a gallery. See how people rely on other people to guide their movements. Watch them see things for the first time. See them ignore something, dismiss something, be drawn in. Watch them share their experience with whomever they’re with. Now go to a lecture and see people hear. Watch them learn. How do they compose themselves? How do they connect to the speaker? When do they break the silence to yay or nay with the person sitting next to them? When do they nod off?

It is your job to see behavior everywhere, and your duty to seek out new experiences to learn from. Constantly reboot your mind and challenge your assumptions. Assumptions are our Achilles’ heel.

See

It’s not enough just to look. You have to train yourself how to see. Seeing comes not from your eyes, but from your mind. Seeing means more than noticing; it means understanding. Understanding comes from introspection. The only way to remember everything you’ve noticed is to write it all down. Pen on paper, no dictation to your voice recorder or typing on your iPhone. The physical motion of handwriting will better ingrain the fleeting moments into your consciousness.

Keep an observation journal with a section for each setting that you choose to study. Force yourself to systematically and consciously break down each action a person takes so that it reads like the captions of a storyboard. Use bullet points. Structure your phrases as verb-noun-adverb — describe what they did, what they used, and how they did it. “She pulled the door forcefully.” “He walked through the turnstile effortlessly.”

When you sit in a café and watch people enter and exit, keep a tally of how many people try to open the door the wrong way. Record exactly what someone does as they try to read the subway map. Watch how people navigate their carts at the grocery store and jot down what they do when they bump into someone else.

Periodically, read back through your journal and find the patterns in behavior across settings. Note the common actions and the outliers. Synthesize your bullet points into prose to validate the next time you go on an observation outing.

Foresee

The more regularly you purposefully integrate observation into your life, the more it will become your natural way of being. Soon you won’t be able to turn it off. You’ll notice interactions everywhere, and be amazed at the parallels between settings. You’ll find yourself predicting how people will move through a space and react to the obstacles that come their way; and you’ll give yourself a pat on the back when you discover you were right.

The patterns that you come to know will make their way into your work. They will help you shape design frameworks and develop metaphors. You’ll be able to accelerate people’s learning and assimilation because you’ll be creating familiar spaces and intuitive touchpoints. It might not even be intentional, but you’ll be doing it. It’s visceral.

UX London 2010

Want to meet Whitney Hess in real life? She is one of the speakers at the UX London conference (May 19-21), a three day event with both inspiring talks and energizing workshops.

Top image: elsie / cc-attribution

Whitney Hess

User experience designer, writer, consultant

28 comments on this article

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  6. Great post Whitney! Really enjoyed it.

    I’d love to know if you’ve found specific examples where the observation of non-web interaction has helped you design solutions in the web space.

    Justin

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  9. You write: “Seeing comes not from your eyes, but from your mind. Seeing means more than noticing; it means understanding. Understanding comes from introspection.”

    Very wise words indeed. Thanks for an insightful article.

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