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The “insights” process is not mystical, but it is creative

The most common output of my work are “Insights.” Yes, capitalized, because that is usually the title of the report or slide deck or presentation or whatever it is that I am producing for a client. I usually do ethnography (“ethnography lite” to real anthropologists or just “ethnographies” to most regular folks in the know). Ethnography is pretty trendy these days amongst design firms, ad agencies, corporate research centers and the like. For the most part, it means going out into the “real” world and discovering something about it that you can use in business. I might have a project about photography for Nikon, for example. I’ll go out into the world, interview 10 people about photography in the context of their daily lives. I’ll observe them on a photo-taking expedition, watch their process, ask questions, and try my hand at photography. I am the learner; the participant is the expert.

After all that, I have maybe 30 hours of video, or 100s of pages of transcripts and notes. Here, we sprinkle some magic dust, say a few magic words, and poof, INSIGHTS appear. But this can only occur after weeks of wading through the research, scanning for patterns, diving deep in particular aspects of the research.

where’s the insight? peek-a-boo!

Both these ideas – that Insights are mystical and that Insights take a long time to develop – are lies. I was chatting with a colleague the other day about our project time line. She was explaining to me how we should have a workshop to share Insights with the client immediately after collecting data.  The purpose of the meeting is so that everyone (clients and researchers) can share their ideas about the research and have a voice in the process. Getting “buy in” you might call it. She says to me, “we kind of know what we want to say right away, even before the research is done.” Having an Insights meeting sooner is ideal because the time consuming part is editing video clips and creating presentations, not the analysis.

So why can’t Insights happen sooner? Clients usually like to believe in the mystical powers needed to “discover” Insights. They are paying good money for these Insights. It should be a hunt. A challenge. Not for the average lay person. With this in mind, we push back our Insights meeting a couple weeks, so that it appears that we’re searching, sniffing them out, hot on the trail, but never quite there.

hmm, what can it mean?
hmm, what can it mean?

I used to think this way, too. That the Insights should be a struggle. They should be reworked and torn apart, put back together again in new ways. You gotta earn it! That’s where our bread and butter is. Discovering something shocking in the research. Something that only we, trained professionals, can see.

research is messy!
research is messy!

However, ethnographic findings are rarely shocking, or even novel. I’m not going to do a photography project and find that most people actually take photographs with their feet. We’ve been designing the camera all wrong this entire time!!

Not mystical, not shocking. But insights can be exciting, when you turn them into usable tools. Most designers and engineers I know don’t want to wade through piles of research. They also don’t want a boring descriptive account of what occurred. They also don’t necessarily want to be shocked by the research.

oooh, that's how it's done, huh?
oooh, that’s how it’s done, huh?

Designers have specific questions that you can answer based on what people are doing. What are the main points? And what’s the point of what you’re telling me? They want direction. But mostly, they want to be excited to create and build. What this means for ethnographers, is that we can be a lot more creative on our end. Yes, we share the findings in an objective and fair (not boring) way. But we get that part done with quickly. Then we move onto the inspiring part. What do photographs mean and how can we help people achieve their goals? How might people want to do this in the future? We can motivate teams of designers and engineers to create something interesting and usable through playful activities, workshops, and tools that are something between research and design. And we get to participate in answering those questions. We, too, are creative. The Insights process might not be so mystical but that’s OK with me.

2 thoughts on “The “insights” process is not mystical, but it is creative

  1. This reminds me of Paula Scher discussing how her clients don’t want her to produce a logo after thinking for a few seconds:

    1. ooh, good one. That’s right, they’re “buying process.” But she has a good point, she can do a logo in a second, one second plus 30 years experience.

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