“It smells like Coney Island!”

October 15th, 2010 by Katie Koch | Filed under Curriculum, Sketching, Teaching.

Wednesday was our third class at the UA Institute. We saw last week how excited the girls were when we asked them to show off their sketches. This week we were really impressed; almost all of them had drawn something they wanted to share!

The focus of Week 3 was Observation. We wanted to teach our students the difference between their memory of a place and how it actually exists. We started a conversation about the street outside the school, asking them what kinds of things they see there each day. They shouted out the answers we expected: Trees! Buildings! Crazy people!

Then we led them downstairs to the street, armed with a set of open ended questions to guide their observations. We asked them to write each observation on a Post-It note, and most importantly, not to talk while they’re observing.

One of our students, Olivia, was lucky enough to talk to one of the people she had been observing. A woman approached her and asked what the Post-Its were all about. When our student told her she was observing the plaza, the woman (an architect) launched into a tirade about the failure of the space as a public venue. Olivia was totally fascinated by everything the woman said to her, and got a great lesson in why user research can be an exciting and inspiring way to learn about a problem.

When we got back to the room we talked about everything the students observed. This time they were able to give me specific examples of the things they’d seen, including tiny architectural details, sounds and smells. They discovered that a certain part of the plaza smells like steaks and another part smells “like Coney Island.” Yuck!

We talked about ways that we might group our observations and came up with a few significant clusters: Sounds, smells, behavior, nature, outside objects and architecture. Each student placed her Post-Its in the appropriate category, and when we were finished we had a whole board full of observations about the plaza. For each category the students were able to tell a specific story about what they saw. For example, Nia told us about a behavior she saw, a guy illegally riding his bike through the plaza wearing headphones. When we probed, she was able to tell us more and more details, including that they song was an “old school” one. Like from the 90s.

Another student had an exciting observation in the plaza. She bumped into one of the benches and discovered that the pointed corners can be quite painful! She suggested the bench’s design could be improved by rounding the corners to avoid a dangerous interaction in the future.

At the end, we asked them why observation skills might be important for designers. Quickly they could identify that it’s important for designers to know a lot about the things they make, and it’s important for them to really see the details they’re addressing.

We wrapped up class by introducing our expectations for our field trip next week. We’re heading to R/GA for a tour and introduction to the jobs designers perform in a large organization. We can’t wait!

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