February 06, 2014

Stop, Get Out, Unplug...And Notice

by Ryan Jacoby

Great product design starts with understanding context, behavior, and motivation. With digital experiences in particular, it can be hard to understand context or observe the triggers that signal motivation from behind a big monitor in your office. If you’re not “getting out of the building” to test assumptions with real people you should be. You should also be doing this to help spot needs and opportunities.

Whether or not I’m looking for new ideas or testing new concepts, I like to get out without any agenda at all except “to notice.” It helps keep me inspired and to hone my observation skills. The benefits of slowing down, wandering, and disconnecting are become more widely known. Why not combine disconnecting and observation?

So stop for a second. What’s happening here?


I captured some more snapshots below for you to practice this yourself right now. Ask yourself, what are people doing and what are they trying to accomplish? Where are they headed? What’s helping them or standing in their way? How are they using objects or their environment? What’s happening in the foreground and the background?

Really force yourself to go deep:

Spot details AND the whole scene

Look for what’s common and what’s different

Tell yourself a story of what’s happening

Discover what’s missing, or as my colleague Janvi described recently, the negative space.




And if you want to learn more:

Listen to this Design Matters podcast with esteemed designer Bob Gill, one of the founders of Pentagram, describing how he “listens” for ideas that lead to amazing logos.

Check out On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz and reviewed here by Maria Popova.

Track down an original treatise on reading the environment, How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Man-Made Environment, by designer George Nelson.