Three essential ingredients for tidying up insights

December 15, 2015

Thanks to author Marie Kondo, many are on a “life-changing” mission to tidy up our homes and lives.

With that in mind, I wondered if the same philosophy could apply to research and how we look at insights. Are insights in need of some “tidying up?”

As a researcher, one of the primary goals of my work is to uncover insights. My first gig in primary research was in “Guest Insights” (at Target) but we didn’t dwell on thinking about what the word “insights” meant to us. We observed, we surveyed, we mined data, and then analyzed and synthesized to provide meaning and recommendations. The notion of an “insight” was not well defined and we were fine.

Now, 10 years into my career, I’ve been on both the client and the supplier side of research. Regardless of whether it is client or consultant using the term, the word “insight” is one that tends to gets thrown around a lot without much deep knowledge. I don’t see it as often as some other zingers like “disruptive,” “lean,” and “innovation,” but it’s close.

On one extreme, the word insight seems to apply to any interesting observation. The filter holes are large and almost anything could be considered an insight – so they often come in quantity over quality. From my client days, I can remember a research presentation that contained more than 20 “insights.” While the statements were all interesting – they described pain points, work-arounds, motivations – they lacked depth and made the report feel cluttered and overwhelming. Those insights were like all of the things in your closet that you “need” but actually have little value and give you no joy (the things Kondo would make you reconsider).

Good research often yields countless interesting observations, but it’s the meaning attached to them that really matters. A true and meaningful insight has a few key ingredients:

  • A truth – a significant observation that describes a truth in the research context. It’s significant because it’s new to the world, new to us or because it’s a way of seeing something old in a new way. It is also something that will continue to matter. Its shelf life shouldn’t pass by the time you get the report.
  • A meaning – why this happens. This is often the toughest part to unravel but yields the most opportunity. If only I could read minds would this part be simple.
  • A spark – the “so what?” This is the reason we care about the first two points. Note that this is not going as far as a recommendation – that’s another animal.

It takes a lot of thinking and practice to get these three ingredients right. To illustrate how these ingredients work, let’s visit the land of retail. An interesting observation for an office supply retailer may be… Some teen girls like to buy notebooks and folders adorned with puppies and horses during back-to-school shopping. That is interesting, right? Sixteen-year-olds buy merchandise meant for first graders?

Good research often yields countless interesting observations, but it’s the meaning attached to them that really matters.

Building on that (with the benefit of additional rich research and analysis, of course!) we might get something like this: Some teen girls like to buy notebooks and folders adorned with puppies and horses during back-to-school shopping because it makes them feel unique and draws attention to themselves. But when they come to our store, there isn’t enough variety so they risk being the same as every other teen girl who likes to buy juvenile back-to-school gear.

That’s more interesting! With the meaning and the spark (why this happens, the problem that it poses) we have more opportunities to meet user needs besides just providing more breeds of puppies on notebooks. Without providing a specific recommendation, the spark opens up a lot of directions we could explore to find solutions.

This three-ingredient definition means that there are probably fewer insights – maybe even just one really powerful one – that come out of months (or sometimes years) of research and synthesis. Just like a “Kondo’d” closet becomes more accessible with fewer and more meaningful things in it, so too does a body of research when it’s tight and tidy.

This isn’t to imply that we should put all the non-essential, non-insights into bags and get rid of them (as Marie Kondo might have us do with our homes full of junk). Hold on to them because they may develop meaning and sparks as new information comes to light. Through more pushing, pulling, clustering and mapping that observation may have the potential to be much more.

The best part about tidying up insights is that you don’t have to fold them up like origami to make them accessible – they just need three ingredients to be magical.