The Seven Pillars of Insight Generation

David Smith and Patrick Young

First published in Research World September 2009.

Generating consumer insights that feed business innovation are at the heart of what we researchers strive for. Here we describe the seven pillars upon which insights are built when generating creative insights that will have the highest business impact. We then look at seven frames that help us ensure only the most practical and profitable ideas go forward.

The Seven Pillars

1. Context: Context explains everything. Techniques from ethnography to trend analysis help us to understand the big picture. The failure of allegedly expert financiers to pick up all the small clues that spelt out the implications of backing sub-prime mortgage loans hastened and worsened the credit crunch.

2. Concept: To understand our complex world we must pinpoint the concepts that sit above any mass of data. For example, the key concept to grasp in explaining what shook the UK about the MP expenses scandal is authenticity. We thought MP’s lived in our honest and genuine world only to learn that they lived in quite another world.

3. Depth: This helps us to bust consumer platitudes; we do not want insights premised on loose generalisations borrowed from others. We must get to the heart of the emotions that drive attitude. People may tell us in surveys they will reduce their carbon footprint by cutting holidays abroad – but will they?

4. Difference: To unearth customer insights we must compare and contrast different emotional and functional need states unearthed in customer segmentation research. For example, powerful insights will flow once we differentiate between mobile phone users who access the internet for the first time by phone, as opposed to those who journeyed to the internet via their PC.

5. Moment: Online research tools utilising the power of mobiles, texting and social networks, allow us to identify what individuals are thinking and doing at exact moments in time. For example, by evaluating travellers’ journeys to the excellent, but inaccessible, O2 arena in East London in real time, we can record the moments of truth as they happen, enabling transport planners to develop creative solutions.

6. White Space: This unleashes researchers’ own creativity to go beyond conventional thinking by dipping into a host of ‘thinker toys’ that stretch our imagination. Research may tell us that students feel universities are impersonal, but it is ‘white space thinking’ that develops this insight into ‘personalised prospectuses’.

7. Enhancement: Customer-driven insights must not play second fiddle to management intuition, but instead embrace these rich management hunches. The evidence may tell us customers are unhappy with the post-credit-crunch bureaucracy required for even a small personal loan. But it is through creative enhancement – where consumer ideas meet the business process – that we can fashion workable solutions: possibly as a guaranteed three-hour acceptance service.

The Seven Frames
We now apply frames to the insights to evaluate their likely impact on the business and avoid the dissemination of unactionable or unprofitable customer insights.

Scoping: Generating actionable insights starts with a clear understanding of the client’s business model. The agency and the client must be on the same business page from day one. In 1998 NASA lost their Mars Climate Orbiter. NASA made calculations in kilograms, while their subcontractor, Lockheed Martin, used pounds. The result was the loss of a US $125 million spacecraft.

Evaluation: Next we pass our insights through this frame to establish their robustness against ‘classic’ validity, reliability, and generalisability criteria. The creative insight generation process may take us beyond the gold standard of market research. But we must be clear about how far the creative process has taken us away from orthodox best practice.

Experience: We then assess the potency of our insights in the context of empirical market research theory: the practical lessons learnt over time about successful methodologies. Experienced researchers, when evaluating insights, will take into account factors such as respondents giving ‘socially desirable’ responses and providing rational accounts for their emotionally-driven behaviour.

Holistic: This frame helps us determine whether an insight is grounded in practicality. By setting our insights in the context of adjacent, parallel and related insights we can check the robustness of the emerging picture.

Enrichment: By applying this frame, the experienced researcher, can assess whether the accuracy of the insight. This check is the basis of stand-up comedy. If sharing an observation about the way we lead our lives strikes a chord with the audience, everyone laughs. But if this insight is simply an individualistic interpretation of an event, the audience remains silent.

Business: Insights must be presented in the context of business frameworks that the audience regularly uses to clarify business complexities. Frameworks that rank order insights in terms of theimpact they will make on profitability, in relation to the ease of delivery, given the clients’ business processes, are helpful in prioritising and valuing insights.

Decision: The final frame allows us to further sharpen our focus on the insights’ potency, practicality and profitability and crystallise the insight in the form of choices available to management. For example, we do not report on the expected drop in customer satisfaction resulting from a low-cost airline charging for hand luggage, but instead spell out the implications of the choice to be made between increasing revenue and jeopardising customer loyalty.

Ultimately the process of generating and evaluating insights relies on the wisdom, flair and judgement of experienced insight consultants and their counterparts on the client side. We believe that our approach provides a helpful analytical framework to build industry best practice around the important task of evaluating and prioritising creativity.

Dr David Smith is Director and Patrick Young is Project Director at DVL Smith Ltd.

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