Insight vs. Absurdity

Facts and insights are not the same thing and yet that is precisely what a great deal of market research seems to present. Insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect in a specific context.  Insight is the act or result of understanding the inner nature of things, or what was in Greek term noesis.  From a business perspective an insight is a statement based on a deep understanding of your target consumers’ attitudes and beliefs, which connect at an emotional level and provoke a clear response which, when leveraged, has the power to change consumer behavior.  In other words, to get them to love you and buy your stuff.  Insights are not poorly constructed inferences based on statistics derived from unrelated questions.  And yet, this is precisely what defines “insights” to many, if not most business folks.  Perhaps that’s why there are so many mediocre businesses and so few innovative one.

I just listened to a webinar on the changing face of mobile shopping.  Of course, we were presented with the standard awe-inspiring numbers showing that internet and mobile sales have been increasing through time.  While that in itself is simple banality, it is the leaps of logic that are made that truly confound.  Case in point, because web holiday sales have increased roughly 3% – 4% a year for the last decade, it means that people are unwilling to “brave the crowds and bad weather” when shopping.  Let’s step back for a moment and think about the absurdity of this.

First of all, it doesn’t address what people are shopping for online or why they’re doing it.  Just because I buy, say, toys online (largely a commodity), it doesn’t mean I’m shopping less at the mall or the specialty store.  The difference is that the experience is simply that much more important in a brick and mortar setting – it is about finding the “perfect gift” not making sure I land the Barbie Dream House.  People are still more than happy to rise at 2:00 a.m. to make it to the Black Friday store opening not because of the huge savings, but because it is an event.  People still flock to the toy store, they just avoid the disheartening experience of a Toys-R-Us.

Add to this the fact that a good half of the US population lives in a geographic area where the weather and the crowds just aren’t that bad.  The point is that the inference made by the researcher tells you more about that researcher than it does the data. Numbers lead to conclusions that are simply without merit.  It’s rather like saying that if 25% of auto accidents involve people named Jones, then the word “Jones” must cause traffic accidents.  And this is precisely my problem with what so often passes for insights, whether derived from quantitative or qualitative methods.

Rather than attempting to use solid analytical tool and understand the complexity of a given system, we make leaps based on untested, under-analyzed information and present it as it we’ve found the holy grail of insight.  There is a science and an art to turning data, anecdotes, interviews, etc. into insights.  It means slowing down and questioning every data point.  Literally.  What does this mean?  What questions do we need to ask now?  What variable exist that influence what we’ve found?  How does it relate to other elements in the system that will lead to new ideas, products, service, etc.? What biases do we have that are clouding our judgment? What information about the human condition can we derive from our facts?  And are they facts at all?

An insight is not an observation of behavior pulled from research. It isn’t a collection of data.  It is the analysis and interpretation of data that induces meaning and furthers understanding of a situation or issue that has the potential of benefiting the business or design process. It is the understanding that re-directs thinking about that situation or issue.  It requires hard work to get there, not half-baked ideas rooted in supposition.  Until we start to demand more from the people who sell “insights,” the real thing will remain sadly elusive.



Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

Join the Conversation


  1. I’m tempted to retort that I know a ‘Jones’ who I’m pretty sure *is* responsible for quite a few traffic accidents…but instead I will simply agree with you.

    In the market I work on, Insight is often used as a word to replace ‘analytics’, when in fact all they mean is ‘reporting’.

    Insight vs Absurdity? Most often it’s simply banality.

  2. Gavin,
    Very well said.
    Might I add my belief that an insight can only be something pereceived and not given. Becomes less esoteric when you think about the implications of this; means effective use in business requires sucessful collaboration, People sharing their insights so as to develop effective routes forward.
    Michael Ballard

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: