The Lazy Person’s Guide to Being More Insightful (or things you can do to get better at doing consumer insight work without really trying).
Lesson 1 – Watch some TV.
Ok, don’t just watch any TV, no Real Desperate Vampire Housewives of Bad Girl County. Watch a good crime series with strong lead characters (there are loads of them, seriously, take your pick).
A rookie mistake when it comes to doing insight work is to approach it as if you were a news journalist. You’ll do a lot of background research; you’ll interview the right people, ask some great questions, collect all their opinions and write a fantastic story that summarizes it all up. However, what you should be doing is approaching the work like a detective. They are hyper-vigilant, always observant, they notice the details and, most importantly, can separate the relevant from the interesting and put two and two together to create a pretty compelling insight or two that solves a crime.
You can learn a lot from watching a good detective at work so screw Barbara Walters and bring on Miss Marple…
Most recently I have been watching Sherlock, the BBC’s contemporary remake of the Arthur Conan Doyle original. It’s a brilliant reinvention that stays true to the original and there are lots of tips you can pick up as a detective of insight and translate to your own projects.
1 – Immersion. The 21st century Sherlock is completely immersed in the places where the crimes take
place, he has befriended the locals, he understands the culture, and, importantly, always insists on spending time at the scene of the crime.
‘There is nothing like first-hand evidence.’ Sherlock Holmes – A Study in Scarlet
Immersion is critical to good consumer insight work. The closer you can get to living the life of your consumer, the more time you spend with them as they use your products, then the more prepared you are to recognize important clues when you
2 – Observation (part 1).
Sherlock is all about the details. He uses all 5 senses and notices everything. Simple things that, on their own seem meaningless and are often ignored, bring on great significance when added to other information. He also notices the absence of stuff (not just the presence of “clues”) in The Hound of The Baskerville’s for instance (semi-spoiler alert coming up) it is the absence of a sound that clues him in to the killer’s identity.
“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” Sherlock Holmes -The Hound of the Baskervilles
When observing your consumers or their environment, the devil is in the details. This cannot be stressed enough. Equally, it is important to tune into what your consumers are not doing, or not using as much as the things that they have and do.
3 – Observation (part 2).
Collect first, think second. You’ll notice that Sherlock spends time just collecting observations. He makes no judgment about what he is seeing until he has finished his collection and then he starts to work out what it all means.
‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’Sherlock Holmes-A Scandal in Bohemia
This is one of the hardest lessons for a new researcher to learn. It is so natural to collect a couple of observations and immediately start to make sense of them, to turn them into ideas and thoughts and solutions. When you do this you are robbing yourself of so many opportunities to do great detective work because your brain is already focused on a specific outcome and your sources are incomplete. The more facts you have to work with in the beginning, the richer and more comprehensive your insights will be at the end.
4 – The translation of observation to meaning through analytical reasoning. This is something that Sherlock excels at. There’s a brilliant monologue in the first episode that is taken almost directly from the original book “The Sign of Four” where Sherlock Holmes tells Dr. Watson an amazing amount of detail about the owner of a pocket watch that has just come into his possession. The contemporary Sherlock does the exact same thing with a cell phone. Watch it, it will teach you a lot.
‘I never guess. It is a shocking habit,—destructive to the logical faculty.’ Sherlock Holmes – The Sign of Four
Do the same. You won’t be right all the time but keen observation, combined with a sense of logic and an ability to trust your gut without overthinking will get you a long way in the world of insight creation.
5 – Contemplation. Sherlock is great at creating distractions for his conscious mind to allow his unconscious to work on connecting the dots. It’s why he plays the violin. He understands the value of walking away from a puzzle and “sleeping on it”.
There’s a lot of evidence that shows that one way of solving a particular puzzle more quickly is by deliberately doing another (different kind of) puzzle. There’s also evidence to show that doodling helps with cognitive skills by distracting your in to a situation. Your brain needs time to digest and to ruminate, you need to be prepared to give it this time and space to arrive at deeper understanding.
6 – Reframing. Dr. Watson fulfills several functions for Sherlock Holmes when he is solving crimes. An important one is the way in which Watson is used to “reframe” a situation or problem. Sherlock is always asking him for his translation of how he sees a situation.
‘Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.’ Sherlock Holmes -Silver Blaze
Find yourself a Watson. Somebody who you know who quite literally experiences the world from a perspective you don’t. See your questions, your evidence, your goal through a fresh set of eyes and watch your interpretations grow and stretch.
…the list is endless. We could talk about Sherlock’s motivation to solve crimes (it is all intrinsic; extrinsic things like money don’t interest him). We can talk about his passion, his sense of competition, his drug-use (!), his strangely patchy general knowledge… it’s all there for a reason.
The point is that we can totally learn to be better insight detectives by watching the masters at work. Choose some good crime TV shows. Watch them. Play along in solving the crimes and exercise your powers of deduction. Notice the behaviors and mindsets of the main characters and apply the principals to the investigations you undertake yourself. Wear a dirty mac, start playing the violin, develop OCD… whatever it takes right? It’s a competitive world out there.