Noticing 101

Test_pattern_1 Does noticing matter? Of course it does.  Lawyers notice for a living: the displeasure of the judge, the anxiety of a witness, the significance of a precedent.  Doctors do too.  House is top doc because he notices first and best.  Crime solving depends upon noticing the faintest clues, with or without the use of an electron microscope.

As a culture, we talk a lot about the importance of reading.  Literacy is a particularly big deal in Canada (where I am at the moment).  I’ve been corresponding with Michael Johnson about an organization devoted to encouraging parents to read with their child. 

This is well and good.  But reading is really just a way of devoting ourselves to what other people have noticed.  And in a culture that is moving at break neck speed from the passive mode to the active mode, surely it is time to "get behind" noticing as much as we have reading.  (When you notice, you are driven to read, but the reverse is not also true.)

I have another motive for caring about noticing.  My nephew has taken up football.  Now this is fine.  Personally I believe football saved my life. I was raised in a home with a strict ceremonial regime, and the discovery that I could strap on pads and just run into people came as the happiest revelation of my young life.  I loved football. But we all know I think that football can turn a young man to thoughtlessness and so Pam and I resolved to take Andrew shopping for shoes.

Shoes?  Yes, the plan is to take Andrew to a mall, to give him 30 bucks and have him join us in the food court with a pair of shoes he has just bought.  The plan is to have him describe these shoes, with perfect clarity, using not a word more than he has to, not a detail less than is necessary  We are not going to look till he’s done.  Then we’ll see.

Now, God kows what he is going to find for 30 bucks and if there is something inherently ludicrous about an 11 year old buying shoes, well, that’s ok.  This is the first rule of noticing.  It’s ok to look silly.  You are going to look silly.  Noticing sometimes makes us look conspicuous and if we are not prepared to pay this small price for noticing, well, too bad.  The game is over before it starts.

The idea is help Andrew to see details, and to talk about them.  The more he does, the better he will get at it.  What’s odd is that we are a culture devoted to self improvement of every kind.  That airport book store is bursting with books about how to be happier, smarter, thinner, richer, and more successful.  But no one has written a book on noticing.  Maybe Andrew will. 


8 thoughts on “Noticing 101

  1. Adam Richardson

    Are you familiar with “Outside Lies Magic” by John Stilgoe? That’s about as close as I can think of a book on noticing.

    I suppose Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine” would be a literary book on noticing with a decidedly offbeat neurotic bent to it, and not something you’d have a child read…

  2. Peter

    Marketers should be good noticers. The other profession who live or die by what they notice, sometimes literally, are spies. There is a nice scene in a restaurant in the movie, “Spy Game”, where an old pro (played by Robert Redford) instructs a neophyte (Brad Pitt) in noticing. One hopes the CIA still do this stuff . . .

  3. Grant

    Adam, thanks for the Stilgoe ref, will check out and thanks for reminding me of the Baker’s reference which I loved reading years ago and then forgot about. Best, Grant

    Peter, thanks, and there is a show on American TV called Psych that features noticing in a big way. Thanks. Best, Grant

    Tom, thanks, ordering it now. Best, Grant

  4. Steve Portigal

    We’ve asked students in our design research class to either do flickr or blogger stuff at least once a week – to practice noticing something and then telling a story about it. This separate from any formal design research/user research activities they may be engaged in, but just to sharpen skills in noticing (the word we used, actually), as well as reflecting and storytelling it. has more about what they’ve been doing.

  5. Grant

    Steve, Good idea and another way to address the “notes and queries” idea for the field of ethnography. Narayan (sp?) appears particularly gifted. His “stop in progress” was especially good. Thanks, Grant

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