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Insights: Making Sense of Your Customer Data

This is a guest post written by Jeff Eyet, co-founder of The Berkeley Innovation Group. It is published with the author's permission.

Many business leaders who learn about the Discovery process in Design Thinking remain skeptical: "Won't gathering hundreds or thousands of observations (and complaints) from customers distract us from our core mission? Empathy and connection may generate good feelings, but not actionable plans."

This perspective is limited at best. The Insights phase of Design Thinking addresses these concerns. It enables your organization to re-frame and deepen its understanding of customer needs. While responsiveness to small bugs and service problems remains valuable, this step elevates seemingly disparate data points into cohesive patterns, which translate into strategic opportunities.

What are the benefits of Insight work?

There are a number of benefits your team and your organization can derive from fully engaging in Insight work. Below are two of them:

  • Weaving individual stories into actionable, business-oriented themes —Rather than continually fighting fires, your team draws on their observations and identifies thematic overlap to see what everyone else sees in a way no one else has seen.

  • Connecting with internal stakeholders who were not part of your field research — The Insights process involves a broader audience, creating the opportunity to connect internal experience with customer input. For example, an observation about customers' last-minute purchase decisions may trigger a sales manager to recall a conversation from a recent trade show about supply-chain challenges.

How to generate insights?

During the earlier stage, Discovery, your team should have collected dozens or hundreds of observations, field notes, and interview transcripts. How do you make sense of this "messy" unstructured data?

First, convert your hour-long interviews into a 4-5 sentence stories. At the end, write down the associated “Moral of the story.” This is an example of an Insight.

After considering all Observations and Insights, work as a team to cluster the individual quotes, facts, and reactions written on Post-it notes into affinity diagrams or clusters. Insight generation is an exercise in quantity over quality. By the end, the walls of the room will be covered in Post-it notes.

Soon, you will start to notice patterns as you group Post-it notes together. This will help you arrive at some powerful Insights.

Here are some useful techniques to deploy:

  • Identify points that are not obvious — Are there any conclusions that seem to run counter to commonly accepted explanations or beliefs? To take a hypothetical electric-vehicle (EV) project as an example, a non-obvious insight might be that rich countries implementing electric vehicle-based mobility solutions does not offset pollution caused by production in poorer countries.

  • Explain patterns in your data — Your clusters reveal patterns. To use the earlier example, you may realize that range anxiety causes distrust of electric vehicles, so users will not trust EV-based mobility services. Look out for the larger picture that emerges in each cluster.

  • Make sense of contradictions — Example: implementation of electric vehicle-only mandates increases longevity of gas-fueled cars and may create a cottage industry to repair those cars among holdouts AND the ultra-wealthy.

  • Create hypotheses around "why?" — An insight by definition is not obvious. Delving deeper with techniques such as the 5 Whys gets you down to fundamentals. Again, using mobility as an illustration, you may uncover that residents fear the switch to autonomous vehicles, because they don’t see the city infrastructure to support an endless stream of driverless pods roaming around town.

Engaging customers deeply to understand the "why" behind their needs and then identifying often-unexpected patterns lays the foundation for developing breakthrough business ideas. Generating such ideas requires doing a different set of activities during the next phase in the Design Thinking process: Ideation.


The Berkeley Innovation Group is a Silicon Valley innovation consultancy, which works shoulder-to-shoulder with corporate and non-profit clients to solve core business challenges.

Knowdeon proudly partners with The Berkeley Innovation Group to bring their powerful innovation process and practical wisdom to individuals and organizations anywhere around the globe. For more information, see our live, interactive Design Thinking online course.


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