“If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days—listening, observing, storing things away… You take home all you’ve taken in, all that you’re overheard, and you turn it into gold. (Or at least you try.)”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird.

Sitting in a museum, the designers put their mockups for signage up and then sat and watched for hours.

They would watch people as they walked up to the sign, how or if they read it, and what direction they would go in.

There were a number of signs used over a small period of time, so they got an idea of how people were reacting to each, and how they’d go from one sign to another.

They were surprised by how many people would end up getting lost. They were surprised by how many people would clearly go the wrong way, then come walking back past in a huff, having realised their mistake, a few minutes later.

This is a good example of what it’s important to test your designs with people as much as you can before rolling them out. Depending on the stage you’re at, this could be as simple as some on-paper testing, or it might be as real as you could possibly make it (actual signage in an actual museum, without anyone knowing that you’re running the test).

But it’s not always possible to test your work out in this kind of way, and even if it is, there’s still an opportunity being lost.

Let’s call it covert research. Which is a slightly less creepy way of saying “watch people do things”.

If you catch the train regularly, then look around. Everyone has a smartphone in their hands, their heads glued to the small screen. Look at what they’re looking at. You don’t have to know the app, just know what’s on the screen. Does it look like a mobile version of a site, or is it something like Instapaper? Is it Facebook the site or the app? Or is it Twitter? Or is it a video? What kind of video? Educational or fun? Are they dealing with email?

Take note of such things and you’ll start to understand how people interact with their phones on their way to work, perhaps their amongst their first interactions with their phone for the day.

But we can go deeper than this – it isn’t a simple case of 1. On train, 2. Read news website. 3. “Oh, they like the news in the morning.”

Deconstruct why they’re reading the news. It’s easy, perhaps. Cramped train, barely conscious, sucking down the coffee like it’s oxygen. Are they preparing themselves to start the day informed? Or are they trying to forget what hell awaits them in the office?

The answers don’t really matter, to be honest. Being right or wrong about this line of thinking isn’t the point.

It’s practice.

It helps you to think about the kind of questions you need to ask when you will get an answer. It helps you build empathy for the audiences you’ll communicate to, as you’ll be well versed in the kind of questions that need to be asked, even for just minutes at a time, you’ll be looking at the world from their point of view.

And hey, in the observation you’re sure to learn something about how people use their devices, their time, their focus. It’ll be anecdotal, but it’ll be something worth knowing.

Go to a bookstore, if you’re lucky enough to still have one near you, and observe. If you have one of those ones that serve coffee, that’s brilliant, go there. Sit at a table or a chair, open up a book in your lap or on the table, and look at what people are grabbing off the shelves.

Take note if it’s the same thing, over and over. It’s not serious data, but it could be enlightening. Maybe you’ll start to see patterns in only 30 minutes.

Are they ignoring what the bookseller is clearly trying to push with their table display, instead reaching for the rich-red cover on the shelf to the right?

You’ll start to see the difference between people looking for something specific and those browsing. Both could offer more information, both interesting and potentially useless, but information that could come in handy.

Those who are looking for something specific might give you some idea of how people navigate great swathes of information, and those browsing will give you an idea of what catches someone’s eye.

There are too many variables to really know why they’re making their decisions – that red-covered book might be a famous author everyone loves, or the title might be a rip-off of a classic novel that people are getting caught out by.

But again, it’s practice in asking questions and developing empathy.

In line getting coffee? Noticing how everyone, even after they’ve had their name called out, with the perfect description of their coffee, still look at their labels? I wonder why?

Getting groceries? In line at one of those self-serve checkouts? How are people interacting with the touch screens? Is there a moment in which a number of people are getting frustrated? or just one? One person, why did they get frustrated? Was it because the scale wasn’t working properly, or because the barcode scanner wasn’t picking up the forrest of black bars properly?

Maybe you’re in a cafe and the wall is filled with gig posters for local bands. Which is the one people are looking at the most? Moving in to get more detail from?

Nothing will beat quantified data and real world testing of your work. But everyday there are moments around us in which we can learn about how to ask questions, developing our ability to think like the audience, and maybe, pick up on a small amount of practical knowledge, too.

It goes without saying that it’s important to not be obsessively watching others go about their day in some starkerly way, but we’re always picking up on little things those around us do. In this case, instead of thinking “huh, cool hat, I wonder where they got it”, it’s a more akin to saying “huh, I wonder if they’re wearing it for style or because their head gets cold?”

That’s a lot better than losing our heads into our own little screens, while someone else wonders what we’re doing.