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Improve your Design Thinking - How being a better observer will improve your design process

As creative individuals, and in particular as Product Designers, we are constantly observing the world around us. Melbourne is a great city to people watch and I find myself doing it every day. Just sit back in your local cafe and enjoy the show. Watch people as they interact with their latest phones and tablets; pay attention when they're using their Myki ticket on the train; even consider the way they buy their "single origin, locally roasted, cold brew" coffee! Many of us take technology and great coffee for granted, so why are sharp observation skills useful? And how do we improve our ability to observe?


Product Design and Innovation - Observation is a Key


Observation is a major component of design thinking and is a useful tool in the design of new products or innovation of existing products. It can help us come up with new ideas and solutions as well as discovering problems we didn’t even know existed!

We can observe the use of and reactions to our own existing products, competitors products, and prototypes. Observing these actions can help us develop empathy for the users, which is important in design as it helps designers develop products, services and systems that are innovative and responsive to actual user needs and desires.

One of the most valuable observations that can be made is any workarounds or improvisations. Workarounds or “hacks” can show us that the user has already encountered a need and even created their own solution. Have you ever used your mobile phone as a light? Nokia observed that users often used their phone as a light or torch, so they added a penlight to their phones.

Often observation is all that’s needed to discover new product ideas or solutions and it is a skill that in also quite valuable when practiced in day to day life.


Becoming a great observer and design thinker


In the book "Change by Design" by Tim Brown, Tim says “good design thinkers observe. Great design thinkers observe the ordinary.”

Observing is easy but knowing what to observe and what to do with with the observation is more difficult. We often see things as ordinary and don’t give them a second thought but we may be missing important details.

To analyse your product like a great observer pick your situation or design scenario. In addition to your own observation, record your observations with photos or video so that you can look back and catch important details that you may have thought ordinary the first time. It’s almost like becoming the detective at a crime scene. To be a detective you need to look for clues and see details that on first glance may not be so obvious.


4 Ways to Improve Your Observation:


Watch what they do, not what they say: Often what is recorded is what was said by the user. If Henry Ford asked people what they wanted they would probably have said "faster horses". Of course he then went on to found the Ford Motor Company, developing the first cars (not super horses!).

Don't forget to use all your senses: Watch and listen, but also feel, smell, taste. Feedback from all the senses affect the users experience with the product. Don't forget about them!

Bring an outsider: Another eye can help us see what we didn't before. Think about someone reading over your work and picking up spelling errors that you missed. Even stepping back and coming back to something can help you see a new solution.

Change up your routine: Purposely do something differently to how it's normally done. What do you notice? Being curious about the accepted ways of solving a problem and doing things can gain insights. Keep asking the question "Why do we do it that way?".

In changing or improving the way we observe we can allow ourselves to see what was there all along. Stop and take a look at an ordinary situation today. What did you observe?

In the coming months we'll be bringing you more valuable ways to improve your design thinking with our "Discovering Things" series, written here in Melbourne.

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