How do you move from data or findings towards insights?

"We are drowning in data but thirsty for insights."​ So how do we facilitate the process of getting insight - a deep understanding into the nature of something? Read on for my thoughts on this popular phrase of our times.
Finding meaning in data.
Finding meaning in data. Graphic by author

In school, we read a super long and super depressing poem where a ship is lost in the ocean and the crew has run out of water to drink. So even though they are surrounded by water, they are dying of thirst. That’s when the captain says,

“Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

This is what today’s quote reminds me of. Many thanks to Kalpagam Sharma, an altUXR member, for sharing her favorite quote and giving me food for thought.

“We are drowning in data but thirsty for insights.”

Understanding the nature of something

By definition, insight means “a penetrating understanding into character or hidden nature of something”​. In this way, an insight is different than a finding or issue from a user study.
Because insights stay true beyond a single study and shift our thinking in a big way. It is unsurprising that insights are not found aplenty, because insights take time to ripen – to zoom into the data and zoom out, and need good questions to house them, and curation to facilitate them.

Example I – Insights need time, curation, discussion, and questions

We were building an application for professional users in healthcare. I was conducting a heuristic evaluation and I articulated an insight on how our users were using the space in our applications, and how our on-screen guidance was not in line with the user behavior.
I had observed this across different studies and countries over 2 years. But it was in this specific discussion on “how do we best guide our users?”​ that this insight of mine found a home.
And this insight changed the way we were providing guidance within all applications of that business from then on. It also changed my understanding of what is important to these users overall.

Example II – Insights need diving in and out of the data and questions

We conducted a large-scale discovery study a couple of years ago, and the outcome was a customer journey. After the study was done, when we were preparing to present, I had a feeling that we were presenting everything but were missing the “heart”​ of the study.
Then I asked my team member to articulate how she would summarize this study to a friend if she had only 5-10 minutes. From her answer, we realized that we were implicitly answering two questions,

  • What the attributes of a sustainable** customer (for this company)?
  • What are the key aspects of sustainability** (for these customers)?

And I felt that we had found the “heart”​ of the study. Even though this was not asked, we started the presentation by answering these two questions with a few bullet points on an A4 sheet. By the end of this presentation, team members told me this was the best user research presentation they had seen – all from an A4 sheet :D!

From this experience, I got an insight into communicating clearly :D…

  • It is important to find the “heart or core”​ of anything you are trying to communicate. I find the heart only after I have analyzed and studied something well, and made the first draft.
  •  When trying to find this “heart”​, a question like – “How would you describe this to a friend (in 5-10 minutes)”​ is super helpful. I use it for most of my articles, like this one and presentations too.

The process for facilitating an insight into something

Here is a summary of my process for facilitating gaining an insight into something: immerse yourself into the information, discuss and reflect on what you see or find, and actively curate information and ask questions throughout this process.

  •  First, dive in and swim around in the details, get to know the topic/domain/context or area well. This could be days, weeks, months, years, depending on the topic/product/domain. It is a continuous, ongoing process.
  • Then, zoom out to observe patterns across studies, projects, and separate the noise from the signal. Discuss with others (including family members and pets :D) and reflect to synthesize, clarify, and see the bigger context around your insight.
  •  Actively curate pieces of information or insights or ideas or food for thought in your notes somewhere. In the beginning, don’t worry about a system just put these somewhere (e.g., your notes on the phone). Review these on and off to see if you discover any patterns or relationships or new insights.
  •  And lastly, especially when zooming out, use questions to facilitate your insights. Because questions contain a purpose within them and this purpose gives shape to data and reveals insights. Sometimes we may even walk around with an answer but not know what to do with it unless a project asking the right question comes along. Some questions could be: What is the noticeable, key, or unique idea/message/finding here? Why is this noticeable, key, or unique? Is this different than/similar to what I know, if yes, how? Have I observed this before? Where? Now that I know this, what does this change, or what would I do differently?

Just like I outlined my process here, I would suggest you to do that same, to get an insight into your process of working, so you can apply it everywhere :).

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