Insights are Rarely Obvious

Years ago I was working on what was the last leg of long running multi-country project. The client arrived from overseas to view, and as you’d expect, sat behind the mirror, listening intently, taking notes, enjoying those fabulous sandwiches.

At the end of the groups the client commented – in a disappointed tone – that he “hadn’t heard any insight”. At the time, in my defence, I thought it was probably because this was the last leg of the study and he’d simply heard the same things he’d already heard in other markets. But being a young ‘un, I didn’t say anything. I took the criticism on the chin and went home feeling sorry for myself.

But time heals all wounds, as they say, and these days I have a very different take on the comment. I see it as an example of a way of thinking about ‘insights’ that I think actually de- values real insight.

Implicit in the client’s comment that he hadn’t ‘heard’ any insight, is the assumption that insights are simply there to be ‘heard’. And all that is needed is a few clever questions (or tasks, or astute observation) and the insights will just ‘pop up’ for all to hear.

In my twenty years in research, this has rarely been the case. Sometimes it happens, but I can count those occasions when it has on one hand.

Why? Because to my mind an ‘insight’ by definition is both a fresh and a deeper understanding of whatever it is we are interested in. If we uncover something we already know, it isn’t an insight. If it’s superficial, or some vaguely formed notion that comes to you in the shower, it isn’t an insight.

So to equate ‘insight’ with something that is readily observable, that has a meaning that will be immediately clear to anyone who happens to be watching / listening devalues the very idea of ‘insight’.

Insights are rarely that obvious. They come from exploring consumers and their worlds from multiple directions, and then thinking long and hard about what it is you have seen and heard.

And until you’ve done the thinking, everything you uncover (everything that is ‘heard’) is just data.