Jane Fulton Suri, one of the leading industrial designers in America and author of the new book Thoughtless Acts, is trying to disappear into the vitamin shelf at a supermarket in California. She has brought me along on a suburban anthropological expedition, roaming the streets looking for what she calls "thoughtless acts" -- which are her raw materials, as rolled steel is for sculptor Richard Serra.
She spots one over at the salad bar, where a woman is poking at the mesclun mix. "That woman came in with her child in the stroller, and she didn't want to pick up anything else," she whispers to me. "She didn't want to actually commit herself to picking up a basket."
Fulton Suri gives a satisfied nod, and then her impromptu analysis: "There's two goals in conflict in the design of the store. The basket is meant to make you want to fill it, but these kind of self-serve operations make that harder."
THE LESS OBVIOUS. Some industrial designers sketch, some study new material technology, some collect inspiration from garbage. Fulton Suri watches and looks, and then presses her observations into the design of products and environments. The mother at the salad bar might become the foundation for the design of a supermarket, shopping cart, or airport kiosk -- anyplace we could all use an extra hand.
As the leader of the "human factors" group at IDEO, the international design consultancy, she and her colleagues will watch kids brushing their teeth, parents pushing strollers, or patients checking in at the emergency room, trying to find opportunities for design to improve the experience. Yet often that means looking for something less obvious: the ways in which the experience can improve the design.
Their observations have brought rubber grips to Oral-B's toothbrushes, raised the height of Even-Flo's strollers, and streamlined DePaul Health Center's check-in processes. For Fulton Suri it's as if the world is one big beta test, in which every feature is begging for improvement.
PAY DIRT IN PUERTO RICO. Her IDEO colleagues then help translate those observations into products, often for some of the world's largest companies. They're professionally consumed with the little tricks and rationalizations that smooth our interactions with the world. Last year, for example, they traveled the globe to watch people clean their bathrooms, finally striking pay dirt in Puerto Rico, where they saw a retired hotel housekeeper use a flat broom to reach high up into her shower's murkier corners.
That woman's "thoughtless act" was then incorporated into the Mr. Clean Magic Reach -- a bathroom cleaning system with a telescoping pole. Proctor & Gamble (PG), owner of the Mr. Clean brand, says it expects to sell $150 million of them this year.
And when IDEO experts were asked to redesign kitchen tools for Zyliss, a Swiss company, they observed one mother prop her child up on the counter to help. Fulton Suri saw that as an opportunity for a "transitional tool" -- something between a wooden spoon and a knife -- resulting in the design of a new pizza-cutter with the handle positioned directly above the blade, the better to keep kids' hands out of the pie but involved in the cooking.
The design solution arose out of a social situation -- which could only have come from Fulton Suri's way of designing by noticing.
AD HOC JUNGLE GYM. Her fascination with the world as it exists has always been a retort to the idea that design is merely about aesthetics. Fulton Suri began to develop her approach as a graduate student at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland, where her studies in architecture focused on human behavior in the built environment.
The earliest premise of Thoughtless Acts arose while doing research at an infamous housing project in Glasgow. As she recounts in an essay, she came upon kids using the boiler-room door as an ad hoc jungle gym -- an act of vandalism, perhaps, but one that demonstrated the realities of everyday behavior. She wondered, "might references to such images help designers to be more sensitive to people's experiences and needs?"
Fulton Suri was one of the first people to bring to industrial design the idea that you can understand human beings and their needs though observation. Over the next 20 years, she worked that idea into IDEO's design process, making observation and "human factors" central to the company's growth to annual revenues of $70 million.
The process she cultivated uses empathy as a tool of design and design as a tool to uncover opportunity -- whether to improve existing products or develop new ones. "As designers we have to be willing to actually enjoy and respond positively to people's need to be unique," Fulton Suri points out. "We have to understand what matters to them and what they need."