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How to Write Compelling User Research Insights in 6 Steps

We're often reminded of the importance of "sharing insights." But advice for how define an insight—and how we should be writing them—is vague at best. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Emma McKhann

This article has been updated and republished from its original version in 2020.

All the user research in the world doesn’t matter if you don't produce insights that organizations can use.

The number one skill a user researcher can possess is writing compelling insights. These insights get teams excited about building products people will love. They push colleagues out of comfort zones and bring a product to the next level. However, as time goes by, the word "insight" has become misused and overgeneralized.

How do we define user research insights?

Here are some of the common ideas I read about insights:

  • They come from analysis and synthesis
  • Teams should be able to act on them
  • They provide a guide/path for better decision-making (and don't give one solution)
  • They should be easily findable

These points feel like the generic definition of a user research insight: an actionable recommendation, based on research, that a team can use to make better decisions.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this definition, but I believe it puts ideas into a small box. It makes insights product-focused, instead of user-centric. Insights are not observations, quantitative data trends, or what a customer wants.

Instead, I propose an insight as:

A nugget of truth about human behavior that pushes us to challenge our preconceived notions about how people act or perceive the world. They reveal to us the underlying motivations behind behavior.

If written well, insights can go further than the small product-recommendation box, and challenge an organization's beliefs on what they should be building for users.

How to identify insights

Insights come from having deep and meaningful conversations with your users. Without these conversations, it's impossible to form an insight.

The best way to get some golden information is through generative research, so I recommend conducting some of those sessions.

What does not count as an insight

Many times I see insights that aren't insights, so, before we define what an insight is, let's start with what an insight is not:

1. An observation

    You can observe a user doing something and record something interesting they are doing. You can do this through contextual inquiry or even a screen recording software (such as HotJar or FullStory).

    However, an observation, on its own, is not an insight. An observation cannot tell us why a person is acting in that way, and insights need to be able to convey the motivation behind the behavior.

    2. Quantitative data trends

    Data trends tell you a lot about what actions users are taking on a product. However, similar to the above, they do not tell you why users are acting in that way. There is little context to the situation when looking purely at quantitative data, and it can't give you a clear indication for the next steps.

    3. Something with a short shelf life

    Insights tend to have an impact over a few months (or even years), and they can influence future product strategy. If you have information that will solve something today—but won't have an impact in the future—that is most likely a finding, not an insight.

    A common finding could be participants struggling with navigation or checkout flow. These are not insights. They are findings. That doesn't mean you don't share them, but don't confuse findings as insights. 

    4. A preference or wish

    Just because a user tells you a preference or a request, doesn't mean you have an insight on your hands. When a user says, "I would love this feature..." you can't use this as an insight and build what they ask.

    Dig deeper into why they want the particular feature to understand the outcome they desire. This outcome is the underlying motivation and is much more valuable than a feature wish.

      What does count as an insight

      Now that we have shattered what an insight is not, let's take a look at what an insight is. As mentioned before, it is:

      • A discovery about human behavior, and the underlying motivations behind that behavior
      • Information that challenges what we believe about users and how they exist in the world
      • Knowledge that uncovers fundamental principles that drive us towards seeing users in a new way

      Cool, but this is still a bit ambiguous and feels high up in the clouds when considering our day-to-day work. Not every participant or research conversation will reveal such earth-shattering information about the human mind and behavior. If it did, I believe user researchers would be a lot more famous and utilized. So, let's ground this in reality (however, with false data).

      1. A discovery about human behavior, and the underlying motivations behind that behavior

      Does what you found give you a new understanding of attitudes, behaviors, or context of users (inside and outside your product or service)?

      For example: People who are serious about moving will visit at least five apartments in one month to see what is available and what they could be missing. That accounts for both behavior and motivation.

      2. Information that challenges what we believe about users and how they exist in the world

      Does what you found negate or change the way you have viewed users in the past?

      For example: Although we believed users wanted to see apartments right after they found them online, we uncovered that users wish to have a virtual tour of the apartment before setting up an in-person appointment.

      3. Knowledge that reveals fundamental principles that drive us towards seeing users in a new way

      Does what you found help you understand the user's mental models on how the world should work?

      For example: Users believe real estate agents have essential and unknown information about apartments new to the market, which is impossible for them to get. Without a real estate agent, you aren't getting up-to-date information about new apartments. Real estate agents use this information to their advantage to charge a higher commission.

        If you run into something that is outside of these circumstances, that doesn't mean you don't write it down and classify it as a finding.

        Findings can be beneficial information to inform quick changes in design or low-hanging fruit. However, they are more shallow than insights in their depth and ability to tell us about underlying motivations.

        How to write impactful insights

        How do you ensure your teams use your insight? After many years of researching this, trying, and even failing with many different methods, I have found the most critical aspect of insights:

        They have to be impactful. One way I make insights impactful is by writing in the first-person perspective of the user. It helps the teams connect with the insight, and also helps gain support and buy-in.

        How else do you make something impactful? Here are the six steps I take:

        1. State the context and background

        Put the person reading the insight into the situation. Explain what the current situation is for the participant, which will also give meaning to the research project.

        2. Explain what you've learned

        Based on the current context, what was the key learning you gleaned? The critical learning may be an unexpected attitude or behavior. It could also be a problem or barrier your participant experienced.

        3. Articulate the root cause (the why)

        Explain why a particular behavior or attitude is coming up in the research, or why a participant is facing a specific problem.

        4. Talk about motivation

        Being able to explain the motivation behind why the learning occurred is what makes an insight great, and is the most critical part of figuring out how to help users achieve their goals. Find the frustration that surrounds any given experience, and you will locate the core motivating factors.

        5. Communicate the consequences

        What does this particular insight lead to, or what impact does it have on your product/service? Explain what will happen if you don't act on this insight. What the user feels is the ideal end-state.

        6. Recommend next steps (if necessary)

        The following steps don't mean you tell people what the solution is. Instead, you can write down a problem statement that synthesizes the insight into a concise sentence (or two).

        The template I will follow is: I am (persona/role) trying to (do X) but (barrier/problem) because (x), which makes me feel (emotion). Also, make sure you give ownership to your colleagues.

          To ground this in reality, I will expand on the example above with my "fake data." As a reminder, please use real data from user research interviews when crafting your own!

          Example of impactful UXR insights

          Project: Trying to understand how people decide to move to a new home (house, apartment, etc.) and the process they go through. We want to improve our apartment-searching platform with this information (the platform mentioned in this insight).

          1. State the context and background

          When we finally decided to move, we were excited about the prospect of finding a new apartment and creating a new home. Searching for apartments online started as a fun and exciting experience.

          2. Explain what you've learned

          However, we soon realized that many of the apartment postings had horrible pictures or very few of them, so it was almost impossible to get a feel for how the apartment looked. What was once a fun activity became extremely frustrating for us.

          3. Articulate the root cause

          We then felt we had to see all these places in person, which was a massive waste of time. We couldn't necessarily make a judgment about an apartment in a beautiful area, with terrible photos. However, we couldn't spend all of our time driving to see a million apartments. We both work full time, so we didn't have the luxury of viewing apartments during the day.

          4. Talk about motivation

          We felt uncomfortable ruling out apartments that may have had potential. It made us feel guilty to ignore a listing that could be our new home. We ended up fighting a lot over this, and the whole situation became increasingly stressful. We didn't want to miss out, but we didn't want to waste time. It was a bit of FOMO, I guess.

          5. Communicate the consequences

          We wish there were a way to have a virtual tour of the apartments. We ended up leaving the online platform and finding a real estate agent who could vet the apartments for us. They had a better idea of what each looked like, and saved us a lot of time.

          But it sucked to put the control with someone else. We wanted to do this experience together and enjoy it. And paying that commission sucked, too. However, in the end, it was more practical for us than the online platform.

          6. Recommend the next steps/problem statement

          As someone searching for an apartment, I'm trying to rule out apartments online, so that I don't have to waste time visiting apartments I don't like. However, I'm not able to properly view the apartments online, due to limited and/or terrible photos, which lowers the trust and confidence I have in the online platform and makes me frustrated. Ultimately, this drives me to leave the platform and find another solution.

          In summary:

          1. Be grounded in reality, and come from actual user research sessions
          2. Don't base solely on observations, quantitative data, or customer preference
          3. Guide teams to make educated and concrete decisions on how to deliver value to users
          4. Allow organizations to connect with users emotionally, and to understand them beyond numbers or persona photos
          5. Help solve actual problem users are having

          Interested in more articles like this?

          Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

          To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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