On Noticing

I’ve been working – or at the very least, sitting at various desks, typing – for about 18 years. Before I had a career, I thought what I would do was write literature, or at the very least, serviceable novels. Then I spent a few years as a technology journalist, and another few as an editor. By the time I was 30 that had plateaued. I’ve worked in Product Management for nearly a decade since then, and I’ve actually been fairly successful. I lead a great team, and the product we work on reaches hundreds of millions of people.

But I’m not sure “Product Management” is really the thing I am good at. For starters, it’s not a specific, single thing, and for seconds, it’s such an early 21st century role that it may well disappear or certainly change radically over the next 20 years, to the point that it won’t make any sense to look back and say “I was good at that,” because that will not be there any more.

So what have I become good at over the course of working for nearly two decades? What skills have I developed?

A few things – I can work Powerpoint, and I’ve never ever hit “reply all” to an email addressed to a whole department – but my most valuable skill is that I’m good at noticing things, and it’s one I realise I’ve worked hard to develop.

By noticing, I mean both the ability to observe, in detail, and of having a way of description that crystallises and captures that observation.

There’s a line from William Morris, the 19th century designer and critic about home furnishing that describes what you get from noticing, perfectly: “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Noticing is both. In the purely useful sense, all good decisions about building digital products involve noticing things. In the beautiful sense, good, even great observations are what you need to think with if you want to think genuinely interesting, true and different things.

Empathy comes from noticing. Noticing a problem users have; noticing a drop off point in a flow or a place where people don’t comprehend what’s happening. I once had someone whoop with delight in a user testing session at an interaction we’d put in a prototype. Usually it’s less obvious than that; notice the small things about people, about users and customers – the body language of someone when they try and change their password on your site; the words they use as they narrate using your product. Where people buy your stuff, and when they decide to go elsewhere. Don’t just notice your own product. Notice everything apart from it – think of it as a silhouette. All the interesting stuff is in relief, around the edges.

Design is noticing. It’s easy to mock Jonny Ive and his diamond chamfered edges and laser welded edges, but if you watch him explain a unibody design for the Macbook or the way the corners of a new iPhone sit just so, you’ll see every approach begins with him noticing some kind of blemish, imperfection, or just a strangeness in what came before. There has to be an edge between two surfaces. Why then, is it unpolished? What kind of qualities should it have instead?

Problem solving – and its big cousin, strategy – is noticing. Paul Graham has a great essay on how to find startup ideas: essentially, it’s to go looking for problems to solve. What do you find annoying? What will be true in five years time, ten years time? What will be different – and what won’t be? As Jeff Bezos puts it, customers will never want higher prices, slower delivery and less selection.

This is the foundation of noticing. It’s the obvious part, where the value exchange is clear. Notice things and fix things = make metrics move, get paid. Unlike PG, I’ll make the case there’s a value in a type of looking that is far less opinionated, and that is more raw and less directed, free of opinions, and free of input from the eye. This is where noticing becomes more than just useful; where it can become sublime and surprising.

Mastery is built on noticing. Little children know this instinctively. My son, like many other four year olds, loves dinosaurs. He knows how to tell the difference between a parasaurolophus and a corythosaurus, thanks to looking intently at his books and models and museum exhibits. There’s a lot to be said about why children become obsessed with dinosaurs, about the power of knowing a domain, of learning all you can learn, but the biggest thing I’ve realised is how unopinionated his learning is. When you become an adult, and particularly when you’re a manager you’re often asked for your opinion and your ideas. You’re asked to analyse and to actively process information. That can black out the power of studying more blankly, of waiting to respond. Spend more time gathering and less time trying to be a part of it.

Deep accuracy is in noticing. It’s easy to say something true, particularly if you’re using a data point, and especially easy if it’s data from analytics or a survey. ‘1,000 people did this’ and ‘10 million people voted for that’ could both be accurate, but are they going to strike your listener as deeply true? Are they so accurate that they’re going to change their minds? Do they already know it? The kind of deep accuracy you need to be really convincing – especially if you want to make a change – tends to come from noticing a lot about not just the people and situations you’re observing, but the people and situations you’re living in and reporting into.

The real power is in truthfully capturing what you’ve noticed. When I was 17, I studied Sylvia Plath’s poem “Morning Song” in my literature class. It’s a poem she wrote just after the birth of her first daughter Frieda, in 1961. It is to the rest of Plath’s poetry what “Friday I’m in Love” is to the Cure’s discography: something kind of perfect and polished, not entirely uncomplicated, but disarming, bright and even lovely.

When I read it at 17 it made no sense. It seemed completely foreign. It was about babies, and midwives and it wasn’t half as brutal as Daddy, or as thick with malice as Full Fathom Five. And I didn’t even really like Plath. But it is the one that comes to me now, twenty years later, in the dawn that follows so soon after the small hours, because my wife and I have just had a new baby. I didn’t remember the poem, just the rightness of its phrasing. I looked it up, and there it was, still perfect after all these years.

In one line, she says of her newborn, “your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.” She watches the light move, and she hears the baby cry:

And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Ah. Yes. Just so.

Like so many new parents, I have spent hours looking as closely as I can at my children, and the sheer rightness of Morning Song still takes my breath away. Poetry is pure noticing, really. I am in awe of something so right that it can travel across that much time, and bridge so many worlds.

Originally written for, and posted on, The Pastry Box.

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