The teenager behind the counter smiled at me as I stood in the corner waiting for my food order.

Is there anything I can do to assist you? Asked another teen as he walked by with a cloth to clean the tables. I’m good. Thanks.  I looked around.  The restaurant was packed — not a single table was empty.  The boy with the cloth was quick to clean the table as soon as people stood-up; just in time for others to sit down.  But yet, not a single patron felt rushed.

I know your food is almost ready.  Would you like some water while you wait? Asked a third teenager. I’m good. Thanks. I looked behind the counter.  Never had a I seen a more coordinated group of teenagers.  My mind wondered…..Why couldn’t I get my teenagers to interact this way when we cleaned our home? Wait! What were the teens behind the counter doing that connected them? (1) Communication with each other (2) Smiling (3) Clarity of roles (4) Scripted phrases…..I pulled out my pen and notebook.  Scribbling frantically.  I had to get it all down.  I even began to map out the space and sketch out their workflows — beginning an impromptu network analysis.

I wasn’t studying the food industry.  I was actually working on a project to improve patient flow within healthcare. I was immersed in analogous observations.

IDEO calls it Analogous Inspiration.  It is when you gain a fresh perspective on your research by shifting your focus to a new context.  In my years of working in the human-centered-design space, I have met with back stage theater managers to learn about barriers that we put in-front of nurses; I have observed zoo-keepers to learn how businesses can better meet their customers needs; I have snorkeled to learn about teaching new skills to those that are afraid; and much, much more.

In my last Design Thinkers blog I talked about ethnographic research and synthesis — and the importance of both. This week I want to add: DON’T FORGET THE ANALOGOUS OBSERVATIONS!  Just before you begin to brainstorm solutions, take a moment, and look for inspiration.  Step outside of your project and give yourself a chance to look at something a little bit differently.  Observe something new.  Participate in something new.  Interview somebody new.  Allow your brain the time to make new connections — shift your mental valleys. I promise it will make all the difference in the quality of your solutions.

To help you with your analogous observations, IDEO and Acumen have a helpful toolkit to assist with planning and performing analogous observations.  What else have you found helpful in your analogous observations?  I would love to learn of any new tips & tricks.  How have you looked outside yourself?

By Christine Folck
Christine manages multiple, innovation design processes and is our lead facilitator for ethnographic studies to develop new processes, technologies or applications for current technology. Christine is our go to technology and behavior change guru.