I tell my students that, if they want to be more innovative, they need to improve their observational skills. I encourage them to think like an anthropologist – to carefully observe what’s going on around them and how people interact with each other. Observing complex social behavior is no different in Denver than it is in, say, Papua New Guinea.
To practice their observational skills, I ask students to notice something new when they commute to work. They’ve driven that route hundreds of times but I’m sure that there are many things they haven’t noticed. So I ask them to make a special effort to notice something new each time they drive to and from work. I also ask them to keep notes on what they’ve newly noticed – that is, what they’ve been missing.
We then discuss what they haven’t seen. Students typically report that they’ve missed seeing an entire category of things or people. Perhaps they missed certain types of buildings or businesses. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed people waiting at a bus stop or the way people dressed for different weather.
Students often ask me, “How can I notice what I don’t notice?” I typically advise them to ask their spouse. After doing something together, ask your spouse what he or she saw. You may be surprised at how different your observations are. For instance, I tend to miss green stuff – plants, flowers, trees, etc. I’m sure that my wife never does.
By and large, my students are surprised at how much they’re missing. It’s a fun exercise as well as being useful. I feel like I’m helping to prepare a bunch of amateur anthropologists – or maybe police detectives.
It was only last night, however, that I discovered that there’s actually a term for noticing what you haven’t noticed. I heard Tom Kelley, one of the founders of IDEO, give a presentation at the University of Denver. He noted that we’re all familiar with the term déjá vu – we see something for the first time but we sense that we’ve seen it before. He suggests that we turn the term around – vuja de – to describe something that we’ve seen so many times that we fail to notice it.
As an example, Kelley described watching an in-flight safety demo. He’s seen it thousands of times. But recently he noticed that the air mask that drops down in an emergency really does need to be redesigned. As he pointed out, you can’t tell if it’s working or not because the bag doesn’t inflate. The only way you can tell that it’s not working is by passing out. That’s probably not the best human interface.
We miss important clues simply because we see them so many times. They’re hidden in plain sight. By improving our observational skills, we can learn more about the world around us and find many more opportunities to innovate. It’s as simple as vuja de.