Finding an insight is not a straightforward step by step process as it might seem

Artwork by Aakash Dewan

I am a researcher and strategist working as the & Strategy Lead of a corporate innovation center of a health company. The past eleven years of my career have been spent in the discipline of user research and strategy, practicing how to inspire and inform the of products and services through unique and powerful insights that emerge from the analysis of qualitative research.

While my job includes being proficient in research, insights, and storytelling, I am choosing to write about insights which give form to the stories that research provides. An insight is defined as “The capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing” (by the dictionary of Google search). Insight is also described as the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively (Merriam Webster).

The tricky thing though is that there is a great deal of intuition that plays a part here. Finding an insight is not a straightforward step by step process. While there may be steps, taking them does not guarantee the discovery of powerful insights.

In the context of design thinking and real-world business challenges, these insights can play a pivotal role in shaping project outcomes. If you see the job descriptions for roles that are adjacent to mine like Design Researcher, Design Strategist or User Experience Researcher, the ability to scout and chisel data for these precious insights is one of the main superpowers that a candidate must possess. Basically, the JD’s imply: find that rare perspective and tell the designers and business folks, why the insight matters and how can one or some of these insights lend the unique edge that will make us make a winner.

Before diving into the insights I have on ‘Insights’, let me share a story from my life. My sister in law, the mother of two, talking about her younger, 3-year-old son said, “He only likes to play with girls, I guess he is going to grow up to be quite the charmer”. She had made an observation about her son and had a reasonable explanation for it too, that he was naturally a charmer. I, on the other hand, was not convinced of it and chose to not agree to the reason she cited. Instead, I said, “Well that’s because he has an older sister and he is only experienced and hence comfortable playing with girls. Maybe that’s why.” There is no telling if she is right or I am but what I could offer to the conversation was a different perspective, one that first questioned her reason for why he may be behaving that way and then looked for a new one.

There is a high chance that I may be closer to the truth since it is based on the fact of him having an older sister as his most regular playmate. Hence he has more experience in being around and playing with girl companions. However, in a real-world context, one plausible reason may not be enough and one would have to look for many such shreds of evidence to arrive at a fresh perspective. There will also be a need for more distinct perspectives rooted in different forms of evidence before one could be found satisfactory and suitable to the context that is being researched upon.

It is really the capacity to find this rare perspective by applying a mix of deduction, induction and abductive thinking and the ability to capture it in the right words, that makes an insight miner in today’s user research-driven design thinking world.

What we are ultimately looking for is having a fresh perspective on a behavior whose reason is associated with existing theory/ logic/ reason which is also the reason why it makes the job of an insight miner, even harder than it is. What is needed is really adding new ‘maybes’ to the mix, so that a new theory/ logic/ reason can be found that can, in turn, add new aspects and elements to the product or service story.

An insight can be compared to a finished diamond, glittering and shining to perfection. But there are many roles that different people play before getting there; from sieving through the differently sized and colored stones of too much and often contradictory data points, to spotting the stone that could be a diamond, then cutting and chiseling it and the finally presenting it in a way that it dazzles and makes a point. A researcher or strategist has to play all these parts. While design thinking is a group activity, it is the insight miner’s job to the group toward finding these unique points of view and perspectives keeping the project’s research goals in mind.

Finally, some insights I have gathered over the course of my work as an insight miner that may come in handy during the next synthesis and analysis session you may hold:

1. Think Like a Movie Viewer

The people in this movie are behaving a certain way, what about their circumstance is making them do that, what are they really responding to.

2. Keep asking ‘So What’

Don’t settle for the first few reasons why users may be behaving the way they are. Try contradictory perspectives so that you don’t get locked into one mindset or theory.

3. Zoom Out

Fly out of the cracks like Superman and look at the whole picture, keep asking “What’s really going on here”.

4. Get to the New News

Ask yourself, is this new news or is it existing knowledge merely paraphrased.

5. Think in Headlines

State the phenomenon like it were news and keep it short.

6. Write it Out

I use the 3 x 5 post-its to write each headline and then move the words around by cutting and slashing. This visualization of my thought helps me arrive at the right articulation.

7. Make it 

Choose words that bring the spotlight to the discovery. Be dramatic and even shocking if you need to. It’s a discovery and it may as well be told that way.

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