Understanding people, your users, the consumers - call us what you will - is, in my opinion now key to successful design and innovation. This understanding does not just inform strategy but is also truly inspirational for generative design stages.
But apart from that - people watching is fun and incredibly rewarding.
When I look at the thousands of photos I've taken, many of them feature people (us) and the work-arounds, tweaks, and adjustments to the world we need to make in order to navigate our lives successfully. The products and services we engage with inevitably get used in weird and wonderful ways, often not always in the same way the original creators envisaged.
The 'what we do' that wasn't forseen offers huge opportunites with interpretation and understanding.
Take this example from a European city piazza. This young woman is taking photos of her friends (we can't actually see them but you can imagine where there are). The thing is, three or four of her friends have given here their cameras to capture the moment too.
What else? In truth I don't know the whole back story, but with empathy you can begin to fill in some of the gaps.
How did she get to be the photographer? Did she volunteer, was it her 'turn', was she 'delegated'?
Look at how she's holding the cameras she's not actually using - how does she know which ones she's used? Does she have a 'system'?
Is there a reason all the cameras look alike? They're all silver and have straps - is there something about conforming, maybe in a fashion sense?
How does she 'know' how to use each one? Did the owners of the cameras need to give her instructions and how might that process have detracted from the spontaneity of the moment?
How does she ever get to be in the picture? What will her friends do for her in return?
There's a wealth of insights that the unanswered questions from this 'extreme' situation can teach us and industry has been benefiting from a people-centred approach for some time. IDEO employs empathic research techniques using behavioural psychologists and anthopologists to underpin their user centred design philosophy, pioneered by Jane Fulton-Suri and illustrated in her book, Thoughless Acts. Some beautiful research work is carried out by Jan Chipcase for Nokia Design using similar methods.
I wonder if such approaches might be successfully applied to other creative industries? How might the challenged advertising industry benefit where consumer disengagement is rife?
It would certainly be interesting to try.