How Devices Impede Our Event Observations


Post authored by Jeff Fugate, SVP Strategic Sales & Marketing

Let me tell you about a modern-day nightmare: I recently went four-and-a-half hours without my smartphone… while I was awake!

It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon. The Washington Capitals were hosting the St. Louis Blues at 3 p.m. at Capital One Arena. We drove to our favorite parking garage, arriving at 2:30 p.m.

If you’re at all familiar with the garages surrounding the arena, then you know that parking spots are tight, even for an average-sized sedan. Making things even trickier, the parking spot I snagged was adjacent to a cement wall, leaving precious few inches for this six-foot-three-inch driver to get out of the car.

As I was navigating this Houdini-like vehicle exit, another Caps fan engaged me in questions. It was just enough to distract me from one more important task: grabbing my phone mounted on the dash.

It was a COLD day—a brisk 21 degrees Fahrenheit to be exact—for our rapid 2.5-block walk to the arena. When we arrived, I reached into my back pocket to get my phone out for security screening.

That’s when I realized I left my lifeline in the car, leaving me two options:

  1. Abandon my family and make a freezing, five-block mad dash to retrieve my phone.
  2. Proceed without the phone I touch at least a hundred times a day.

I chose Option 2, but the revelations that followed were priceless.

How Removing One Screen Reveals New Discoveries

eventGranted, for the first few minutes of the Caps game, not having my phone was unsettling. I chose to cut myself off from everything but my immediate surroundings and initially, it felt like a big sacrifice to make.

This meant no checking scores or catching NFL Wild Card game highlights. No texting my “Blues” friends during the game to rub it in when we scored a goal. No social media posts or checking email, either.

But soon, this no-phone decision didn’t seem like such a big sacrifice after all. Because in time, a more peaceful feeling took hold, as I observed more of what was happening in the moment. I started to notice new things – things that had been there for years, but I was too distracted to see.

I thought to myself, “How is this any different from when I first started attending Caps games back in 1997, when I was carrying the Star-tac flip phone or the Sprint push-to-talk phone or whatever archaic device I was carrying at the time.” Back then, phones had one function – making a call. If you weren’t making a call, they disappeared.

But now, without my phone, I was graced with a new set of “looking glasses” that revealed so much more about this Caps game experience.

Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observational Skills

Jim Gilmore, co-author of the best seller, The Experience Economy, literally wrote the book that spawned worldwide interest in experience design, customer experience management, and experiential marketing. If you’re engaged in any aspect of event experience design, it’s a priceless resource I highly recommend.

Gilmore’s latest book, Look: A Practical Guide for Improving Your Observation Skills, takes this experience design concept a step further, as he introduces the metaphor of six “looking glasses” – each examining a specific skill to master within the context of experience design. The six looking glasses include:

  1. Binoculars – to look across and survey at a distance
  2. Bifocals – to alternatingly look between two contrasting views or directions
  3. Magnifying Glass – to look closely at one main spot
  4. Microscope – to look around for more and greater detail
  5. Rose-Colored Glasses – to look at something better than it actually is
  6. Blindfold Looking – to look back and recall

The story I shared of my screen-less Caps game best supports the “Microscope” looking glass.

A microscope is an optical instrument that uses a fixed lens for viewing very small objects.

Microscope looking requires more scrutiny and attention to a myriad of details – something that’s less apt to happen with a device competing for our attention.

Microscope looking entails a deeper dive on a larger scene, where we take a closer look at the details, the people, and their relationships with one another and surrounding elements. More importantly, microscope looking reveals things that are less obvious, but still very important.

In the context of events, microscope looking might focus on attendee non-verbal clues. For example, let’s say your keynote speaker is ten minutes into their talk. At this point, event organizers are typically either back stage or at the back of the room, observing these keynote moments from their own vantage point.


If you apply your microscope looking glass, you might move to a spot where you could study your attendees’ facial expressions and body language. Are they smiling, leaning forward and deeply engaged? Or are they grimacing, leaning back and scanning their phones? How do these reactions differ from one demographic segment to the next?

Technology can be an effective catalyst for microscope looking, providing detailed data on attendee movement and linger times, but it still runs short on the emotions piece. With that said, it won’t be long before biometrics data enters the looking glass picture.

Gilmore’s book is majorly impacting both how and what I observe at conferences and trade shows. In future posts, I’ll share more about the five other looking glasses and how they can be applied to capture richer and more actionable insights.

What event elements do you see as a best fit for the microscope lens? What details are you studying more intently and how is this enhancing your own experience design strategy?

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