In the business of innovation, insights are an important currency. Insights are how we package our understandings of human experience, and they are bought and sold every day because business leaders know the human context is the heart and soul of meaningful and differentiated offerings. Insight is core to how businesses deliver value and how they power up the innovation process. So, what makes an insight excellent?

The power of an excellent insight lies in its ability to critically reframe our understanding of the problem at hand. Excellent insights are crafted by anthropologists, trained in the art of exploring all the strange and wonderful contexts that shape and underpin the experiences we seek to understand.

The Thickness of Meaning

American anthropologist Clifford Geertz was well known for what he called a “thick description of culture” – an explanation of human action and experience that relies on context to unpack the meaning of how and why we do the things we do. Geertz often described the significance of the thick description using the example of the difference between a blink and a wink.

On the surface, the blink and wink of an eye may appear identical; both gestures consist of a rapid shutting of the eyelid. However, there is a world of difference between these two seemingly similar movements. One is an autonomic physiological reflex, part of how our body moistens our eyes and keeps them free from dirt and debris. The other is pregnant with social meaning; it could be a conspiratorial gesture, a way to convey a secret message across the room, or even an expression of sexual desire.

The point is that only a thick description of the blink/wink provides us with enough context to decipher the difference. By excavating the context surrounding it, we start to see the gesture in an entirely new light.

As anthropologists working in the context of innovation, we apply a thick description to our projects, and in doing so, we are able to share narratives about human experiences that reframe the client’s understanding of the problems they are trying to solve. Whereas most researchers might ask, “How do you like your steak?” we prefer to ask, “Why are you eating? How does eating make you feel? When do you choose to cook, and when do you prefer to eat out?” By asking these kinds of questions, we recast human experience, showing it in a new light and gaining new perspectives for problem solving.

Reframing the Problem to Unlock New Opportunities

Over the years, I’ve worked with many great anthropologists to bring this level of understanding to clients. The following three cases illustrate the power of an excellent insight to reframe critical assumptions and show new ways of solving a business problem.

  • Patient experience design: Understanding the “moment” of injection. A pharmaceutical company asked us to help the organization understand the “moment” of injection undertaken by people required to self-inject medication to control a series of autoimmune diseases. The client believed that by understanding this experience, it would be able to provide support services that would improve the patient experience. By exploring the broader experience of illness, we discovered that there is, in fact, no “moment” of injection; the injection experience transcends the entire treatment journey and is only one of many difficulties that make up the broader experience of people who live with these diseases. This understanding of the problem recast the client’s hypothesis and led to a series of service designs that better address the holistic experience of their patients.
  • Designing the future of international logistics: Mistaking operations for service experience. A global shipping and logistics organization asked us to help it redesign a key offering by fixing what it believed to be the stickiest pain point for customers. However, our ethnographic insights uncovered that this pain point was actually quite irrelevant to the company’s customers; it was a complex operational problem that, for the most part, lived below the line of customer visibility. There were actually several other key service touchpoints that were far more critical to customers. This shift in understanding the problem led us to design a future CX that targeted the parts of the journey that mattered most to the company’s customers. 
  • Financial product redesign: Understanding value for core users. A title insurance provider was looking to improve uptake of a digital platform for lawyers by understanding its value for users. The company believed a lack of clarity on cost and time savings was a key barrier to usability. Insights uncovered the fact that the central problem was actually that the provider didn’t understand what mattered to its core users, who were actually clerks. This shift in understanding both the problem and who the core users were led us to create a set of design principles and target critical areas for redesign that addressed the needs of the users that mattered.

An excellent insight is a kind of excavation; it is an unearthing of meaning that exposes the assumptions that make up what counts as common sense. In doing so, we gain new perspectives on human behavior and unlock opportunities that others miss.

This article originally appeared in MISC Magazine, published by Idea Couture, a Cognizant company. 

Emma Aiken-Klar, Ph.D.

Emma Aiken-Klar, Ph.D.

Emma Aiken-Klar, Ph.D., is Vice-President, Human Insights, at Idea Couture, a Cognizant company. She leads a global team of social scientists in... Read more

X Close