What Is An Insight?

By Kevin Swann, Strategist

Insight is a strange word. It sits somewhere between the process of research and the process of making, and it’s meant to help designers and agencies know what to make and also how to make it. But, what exactly is an insight?

I don’t think I’m alone in my confusion. Folks in the industry seem a little confused when they talk about these powerful ideas. I’ve seen them described as:

  • Universal human truths (i.e., insights are anthropological)
  • Underlying user motivations (i.e., insights are psychological)
  • Unmet needs (i.e., insights are about market gaps)
  • New ways of seeing everyday things (i.e., insights are about innovation)
  • Outcomes of research or ideation activities (i.e., insights are methodological)

In one sense, it’s okay that these definitions are varied — some are about people, some are about things, some are about methods — but none of them are particularly helpful. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of “universal human truths.” The anthropologist Clifford Geertz even goes as far as to tell us that “universal human truths” are unhelpfully superficial or abstract, if not outright boring. More importantly, I wonder how much they, or any of these other definitions of insights, help us to turn research into action.

  • How do I know what universal human truth matters to my work?
  • How do I know what underlying motivations are relevant and why?
  • How do I know what unmet needs are important or feasible to meet?
  • How do I know that a new way of seeing something will resonate with users?
  • How does it help to know that insights come from research unless I know what that result is meant to be?

It seems to me that if insights are so critical — and there’s no reason to think that they’re not — then we need to better understand them so that we can get value from them.


Insights light things.

Anna Ho, a Senior Strategist here at Smashing, says that insights “light” things. When she delivers an insight, people light up with understanding and, more importantly, they light up with ideas about what to do. Another way of saying this is to say that insights do things. They get people unstuck. They provide direction. They light the way.


How do they do this?

Insights light the way by being goal-oriented.

If the goal is to create user experiences, then it is important to know what the experience is meant to be (they can help you figure out what an experience ought to be too). The more clearly defined the goal, the more focused the insight can be.

Insights light the way by being contextual.

Insights may sound general in a presentation, but they are almost always rooted in a context. This contextual thickness helps the insight’s audience make sense of what’s going on and what to do with what they’ve learned.

Insights light the way by being tailored to a particular audience.

The best insight isn’t the one that comes from the most rigorous research, has the most data support, or is “truest.” These should be givens. The best insight is one that speaks directly to its audience’s expertise, concerns, pain points, and business needs.


Putting it all together.

So far we know a few things about an insight, but let’s see what it looks like as a definition.

An insight is a statement, linked to a specific context or contexts, that explains how and why a user’s actual experience differs from the desired experience in such a way that it provides a directive for the audience.

I know it isn’t as pithy as “a universal human truth” but I think this definition works. Let’s look at it more closely:

An insight is a statement,

Insights are not questions or descriptions: they are statements. You might even think of them as thesis statements in that they that are backed by evidence and analysis.

linked to a specific context or contexts,

Insights, especially user insights, come from actual settings and situations. This context tells us where our users are using a product, what they are using it to do, and what’s preventing them from succeeding, so that our products can help them do it better.

that explains how and why a user’s actual experience differs from the desired experience

In design, goals matter. That goal can be an experience, an emotion, or a task, but there is a desired outcome that the design is either meeting or not. If it isn’t, then we need an explanation as to how and why it isn’t meeting this goal.

in such a way that it provides a directive for the audience.

This is what insights “do.” As a Strategist, my hardest work goes into thinking about my audience. Is this for a UX designer? A content strategist? The legal department? Knowing who my audience is tells me something about how to talk to them and what kinds of directives they need.


From problem to insight.

When our team was working on the Philips Sonicare for Kids app, we knew that the combo of children and oral health were not an easy sell. But rather than accepting that children just hate to brush their teeth, we conducted contextual research to see for ourselves. What we found was that children in fact do not hate brushing their teeth — they hate being made to stop playing, or worse, going to bed.

Put another way…in the context of morning and evening brushing, children aren’t achieving the desired experience because their actual experience is frustration, so the creative team (our audience) needs to motivate children by turning brushing into an engaging play activity—i.e., something to look forward to.

The creative team took our insight as a starting point to think through the concepts that eventually became the motivating character Sparkly.

Senior Strategist Lulu Xiao has found that broader “human truth” insights, such as “people are more motivated to keep their families healthy than they are to save money, which means they will spend money to guarantee it” can act as north stars that guide teams from early concepting forward. But even in these cases, I still think that context is critical because insights, even broad ones, still have to relate meaningfully to one’s project.


What can an insight do?

Insights turn data into direction. As agencies and consultancies increasingly work with the same tools, data types, and design frameworks, what sets them apart are the not only the quality and impact of their insights, but their ability to know what insights are appropriate when, and for whom. Knowing this is also a matter of building insights, but these insights make us better partners, not just better makers.

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