Some years ago, on a business trip, I checked into a hotel that had just implemented a new computer system. I asked the desk clerk how he liked it. He responded very positively: “It’s great. It’s so much better than the previous system.” He smiled broadly and spoke enthusiastically. I assumed that he was telling the truth.
I also noticed some telling details. He had to bend far forward to reach the keyboard. Then he had to tilt his head back to see the screen. It looked awkward to say the least. He couldn’t make eye contact with me and use the system at the same time.
More problematically, the system was rigid and field-oriented. The screen contained many fields, not all of which were necessary for each client. But you couldn’t skip a field. To get from Field A to Field Z, you had to navigate sequentially through Field B, then Field C, and so on. The poor guy must have hit the Return key a dozen times while checking me in. He couldn’t check me in and have a friendly conversation at the same time.
I noted two things about the situation. First, the man seemed genuinely pleased with the new system. He recommended it without reservation. (No pun intended). Second, the system really wasn’t very good. The man didn’t realize what he might have had.
I also thought about how I might act if I were an executive at the hotel company. If I listened to what the desk clerk said, I would congratulate the IT department, maybe give out a bonus or two, and move on to the next problem.
But if I looked instead of listening, I might have had a very different reaction. The system was awkward, physically uncomfortable, and not conducive to good customer communication. I might not have torn the system out, but I certainly would have requested an upgrade.
This is a pretty good illustration of the difference between seeing with your mind and seeing with your eyes. The desk clerk was seeing with his mind. He had a mental image of the old system (“clunky, user hostile”) and of the new system (“much improved”). He didn’t see what he was actually doing. He didn’t perceive any shortcomings because he was comparing it, not to an ideal system, but to an old system.
A good observer, on the other hand, would not compare the system to preconceived notions. A good observer would have no preconceived notions. She would merely observe and identify problems and opportunities.
My experience reminds me of the women who designed the Volvo concept car some years ago. If I were designing a car, I would assume that it “should” have a hood (bonnet) that opens. After all, all cars have hoods that open. There must be a reason. That’s a notion that I see in my mind’s eye, not in my physical eye.
The Volvo designers, on the other hand, simply observed how people used their cars. They noted that drivers rarely open the hoods. Indeed, they do so only to add windshield washer fluid. The designers asked a simple question: Why bother? They put a fluid filler opening on the outside of the car and simplified the entire front end of the car by eliminating the openable hood.
The designers created a car that is simpler, cleaner, lighter, and stronger. That’s good design. It comes from seeing the world as it is, not as it’s assumed to be.