INSIGHT | July 2021

Why we people-watch

Watching the world go by can provide simple solutions to complex problems

Process | Design

Consumer needs

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Sometimes the best ideas come from unexpected places. As product and service designers, we often follow user-centric processes to develop usable ideas. This involves research and user testing, quantitative inputs and generally very active participation.

But there are limitations to quantitative research. It is controlled and contrived, and it can create bias. The very act of asking an opinion can trigger a biased response. In other words, there’s only so much you can learn and we often underestimate the importance of passive, qualitative research.

All too often, designers can get stuck in the studio. But spending time watching how people behave in day-to-day life can help you solve complex problems and draw on social insights that might otherwise be overlooked in the design process.

Simply put, people-watching can help designers of all kinds create better products and services that focus on real needs and wants. We’re not the only ones who think so. The growing field of behavioural design, which brings together behavioural science with design practice, has roots in people-watching. 

When you take ideas from real life and apply them to design, surprising and smart solutions come to light. Simple observations – such as how do people respond to signs or instructions, or the fact that they often have only one hand free to use their smartphones when travelling on public transport – can be used to drive a whole range of ideas. In fact, the latter of these was the reason Why created the thumbwheel for the BBC Radio iPlayer app.

You can learn a lot by watching the world go by, so much so that we’ve made this an essential part of the way we work. The best design is intuitive to use, and if so much of design thinking is about people, it only makes sense to take cues from human behaviour.

When you take ideas from real life and apply them to design, surprising and smart solutions come to light.

People-watching can help designers of all kinds create better products and services that focus on real needs and wants.