What is insight in design?
When we talk about "insight" in the design process, we refer to a deep understanding of a situation that can lead to actionable outcomes. This understanding comes from engaging in exploratory research activities such as observing people, having conversations with stakeholders, participatory workshops, etc. We integrate the findings of these research activities through analysis and when we can see how the findings fit together we say we have made sense of the content we explored. But designers do not stop when it all makes sense. We are driven to use the understanding to inspire thinking about and making things for the future. Thus, design insight is about deeply understanding the situation and then doing something about it for the future.
Design insight can be communicated and shared with others if we visualize it in the form of a "big picture". The big picture reframes the situation so that we can see it in new ways which can help us to take action through design. Design insight connects the deep understanding to actionable designed outcomes.
How do you get to insight in design?
You get to insight in design by conducting exploratory research that leads to messy data. The messy data is analyzed as design conceptualization begins. Figure 1 shows a framework for the analysis of messy data. Here we can see that the path of analysis starts in the lower left with the collection of data related to the topic or situtation. The layers of analysis are based on Ackoff's (1989) DIKW scheme (where the letters D, I, K and W stand for Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom) which distinguish different levels of sense making. Here data are documented, organized and reorganized into information. Information is then transformed into knowledge as the analysis proceeds. Theory is said to set the boundaries for this investigation and to inform the analysis process. Sometimes new theory is created as a result.
Figure 1: The framework for analyzing messy data in the front end of the design and development process.From Sanders and Stappers (2012).
What is the big picture?The big picture is a visual representation of what you have learned through exploratory research, analysis and design conceptualization. It reframes the content so that it is easier to see and to share with others. The big picture connects backward to the data, and serves to house and to organize it in a way that reveals previously unseen patterns and structures. Sometimes the big picture will reveal different things depending on where you are standing when looking in (or out of) it. The big picture also points forward to the future, and serves to suggest or provoke new ways of thinking about opportunities for actionable outcomes.
What do big pictures represent?
Figure 2: The themes and types of representation that can be combined to
How do you know that the big picture is working?
It can take many years of experience to be able to create effective big pictures from the messy data of exploratory research. A big picture that works well has these three characteristics.
1. It is simple. The big picture evokes new directions in thinking. By simplifying, it reveals new ways to see. The visualization of the highest level of the big picture should fit on a single page.
2. It is memorable. Others can remember what the big picture says without having to make extensive notes about it.
Insight in the design process can be visualized in a big picture that you can use to connect your understanding of the situation to actionable design outcomes.
Ackoff, R. L. (1989) From data to wisdom. Journal of Applied Systems Analysis 15: 3-9.