What Ben was implying is that we often aren’t as diligent as we should or could be in immersing ourselves into the facts surrounding whatever problem we’re trying to solve. He means that we’re trying to design a solution, we must become better detectives.
Solving crimes successfully requires careful attention to both detail and the bigger picture in order to find the connections and patterns between seemingly unconnected clues. But that is also exactly what the best design thinkers do, so the interesting question for design thinkers is, “How do you hone your observation skills?”
Here’s at least one answer. If you happened to mistakenly wander into the Frick Collection on East 70th Street in New York City on a Monday, when the art museum is closed, you just might run into a group of ten to fifteen newly-minted NYPD detectives gazing at a 1667 painting by Johannes Vermeer called Mistress and Maid. The painting shows a maid handing a letter to a woman seated at a small writing table in a rather dark and shadowy setting. The woman gazes at the outstretched hand of the maid offering the letter and holds her hand to her chin. There is nothing in the background to provide much context, and the painting actually looks unfinished.
The NYPD is not there to appreciate the art nor are the detectives taking a crash course on catching art thieves. They’re there to improve their power of observation and hone their visual skills by participating in a program developed by a former educational director for the Frick, geared toward newly promoted officers, sergeants, and above. According to NYPD Assistant Chief Diana Pizzuti, “In New York, the extraordinary is ordinary to us, so in training we’re always looking to become even more aware as observers.” The officers are given a limited amount of time to arrive at the who, what, where, why, and when of the Vermeer painting. One captain observes that the mistress is right-handed, well-to-do, and that it appears she has dropped her pen. He’s not sure about the maid, though, and asks his fellow officers whether she is smirking, and do they detect a defensive posture?
The process is one first of observation and description, moving from foreground to background, followed by analysis and conclusion. How does that apply to assessing a crime scene? By learning how to widen the circle of observation to include a broader perimeter, detectives consider a wider range of clue sources to examine. One captain tells the story of a fleeing suspect who fell to the pavement while racing across rooftops to avoid capture. Frick training prompted the officer to stop, take in the entire scene, and widen his search perimeter beyond just the site of impact; he located an automobile on which detectives found palm prints that aided in reconstructing and mapping the intended escape route.
The New York Police Department may be on to something because it is difficult to find any workshops or training programs focused solely on improving the power of observation. This is a bit curious because of the most popular shows on TV is Crime Scene Investigation (CSI). It seems people are fascinated by watching evidence and information be collected and analyzed.
The challenge for the design thinker is to learn how to engage in the same level of investigation in the effort to solve customer and user problems to better innovate.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.