A Simple Framework for Generating Insights

August 14, 2014 in Human-Centered Design
Traci Thomas
Service Design Lead

Imagine this scenario: you go to the doctor’s office because you feel ill. You explain to the doctor the types of symptoms you’ve been experiencing. The doctor runs some tests and when you see your doctor again, she tells you that you will need invasive surgery followed by a strict medication regimen. But your doctor doesn’t explain the cause of your symptoms or how they translated into a need for an operation, much less the medication you have to take. Surely you would have a lot of questions about why surgery is necessary, and the lack of information would most likely make you question your doctor’s credibility.

Why are insights important?

The gap between your symptoms and what your doctor prescribed for your next course of action is what we call insights in human-centered design. Insights are like that step in a doctor’s diagnosis that helps to explain why the symptoms in your lab results are important. Insights are a critical part of the design process because they answer the “whys” behind your research data. It is the part of the process that calls for deeper investigation and in some cases requires you to make an intuitive leap from the obvious to the finer distinctions of meaning behind your research.

What happens when insights are overlooked?

There’s a natural tendency to want to leap from observation to action. You identify a problem in your research, you immediately think of ways to fix it. It’s equally important not to jump to conclusions during your review of research observations, but consider your observations collectively as they tell a richer story and deepen understanding. While it might be tempting to jump from research observations directly to generating ideas, not devoting time to framing insights could lead to unintended assumptions about your research and, worse yet, misaligned design solutions.

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Once you have a good idea about key patterns and why those patterns are occurring, clear and well-developed insights lead you on a path to developing guiding principles that lend stronger credibility to your design solutions. Similarly to how a proper medical diagnosis helps to define a well-suited and an effective plan of care, guiding principles help spark creative ideas during the idea generation process.

A couple of years ago, I conducted user research at a small cultural institution in Chicago. We had identified many pain points in the visitor experience especially in the main lobby. There were lots of confused and frustrated visitors trying to find information to guide their visit. This was due in large part to poor signage, lack of a clearly identified information desk, too many brochures causing a lot of clutter, and an uncomfortable, austere physical environment not suitable for large groups.

One of our insights was that the lobby, a critical entry point for visitors, was a stress-inducing zone that reduced the quality of the visitor experience and that can possibly prevent a return visit. This insight enabled us to think about ways in which the institution could transform the experience and actively welcome their visitors.

Developing insights that lead to idea generation.

Remember, articulating insights is simply a step in the design process for deeper reflection. It encourages you to probe into the “why” behind the patterns of your research. But skipping that crucial step can undermine the hard work that went into research, and the design decisions to follow. Provided below is a simple framework for moving from research observations to insights to guiding principles. It highlights key questions you can ask along the way and provides an example you can use to get started.

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