A Beginner’s Guide to Human Insight by John J Sills

(Or what a failed newspaper can teach us about the importance of truly understanding what your customers want)

There was a quite brilliant story in May this year about Trinity Mirror, who launched their ‘New Day’ print newspaper to much fanfare in February, only to close it down just three months later.

The reason CEO Simon Fox gave was insightful in itself:

‘At the end of the day, what consumers told us they would do, and what they actually did, were different things. We couldn’t persuade enough people to try the product and make it part of their daily routine.’

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You can imagine the scene. A research group is taking place on a Tuesday evening, with eight participants making polite small talk waiting for the moderator to enter. Behind the mirror, a group of strategists have their laptops whirring whilst digging into the free sandwiches and crisps. The participants dutifully answer all the questions that they’re paid to answer, and the strategists type away whilst nodding their approval.

Q. Would you like to have more news that’s relevant to you? Yes.
Q. Are you tired of clickbait journalism that dominates social media? Yes.
Q. Do you miss reading printed newspapers? I remember when I was a kid…
Q. Would you like relevant news delivered to you every morning in a simple and digestible format? Of course!

The participants go home fed and paid, the strategists buoyed by the undeniable evidence that suggests their idea is a winner.

In an ideal world, ‘New Day’ is a great idea.

But yet, despite that, they ‘couldn’t persuade enough people to try the product and make it part of their daily routine’.

Why? Because the participants’ real daily routine involves kids, parents, dogs, work, cars, petrol, shopping, nuisance PPI calls, mortgage payments, kids again, the Great British Bake Off, and trying to find the toothpaste.

In an ideal world, we start the morning reading the paper whilst eating avocado on toast with Classic FM playing in the background and the kids dressing themselves, tidying their rooms, and walking to school in virtual bubble-wrap to insulate them from danger.

In an ideal world, ‘New Day’ is a great idea.

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This is the mistake that is made with most ‘customer’ insight – starting at the thin end of the wedge, with companies talking to customers about what they produce, rather than trying to understand what is really important to them, and how their company could be most useful.

Most focus groups are, by their very nature, set up to have a focus. To answer a question that’s already been raised, to give thoughts on an idea that’s already been had. Rarely do we just speak to our customers about them and their lives, without some kind of pre-defined script or agenda.

Real insight is something that tells you about how people feel, based on real-life experiences and behaviours, not a sanitised and aggregated collection of thoughts based on a hypothetical situation or a specific product a company produces.

Insight is something that tells you how people feel, based on real experiences and behavioursClick To Tweet

It’s often just one sentence, one thought, or one story that gives you a perspective that you’ve never heard before, that makes you stop and say ‘huh, now that is interesting…’ Great businesses can be built on one superb human insight – and many bad businesses suffer from paralysis caused by constant exposure to 80 page PDFs, full of people saying how much they’d really value a reward-based points scheme.

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So over the next few articles, I’m going to show a few ways to find superb human insight. And to get you started, here are three simple steps you can take almost without leaving your desk:

1. Speak 1-to-1

Have more direct, one-on-one conversations with customers, where the only agenda is to listen to what they have to say, not because they’ve complained or because they’re a shareholder. You’ll hear real stories, real emotions, and real problems.

2. Start broad

Ask about their life, their work, their stresses and their frustrations, what they love to do and would love to do more of. Play a game where if you mention your product, you lose and have to donate £50 to charity.

3. Make connections

One conversation on its own isn’t enough. Speak to at least one a week, or one a day if you’re really serious about this. Then get your team together once a month, and talk about the stories you heard. Find the connections, the things in common. Then grab post-its and work out how you can be most useful to them.

Next time, I’ll look at the importance of making insightful connections. As Stephen Johnson says: ‘The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.’


John Sills is Senior Consultant at The Foundation. If you liked this article, you can sign up to his personal blog for more of the same.

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A Beginner's Guide to Human Insight by John J Sills (Or what a failed newspaper can teach us about the importance of truly understanding what your customers want) There was a quite brilliant story in May this year about Trinity Mirror, who launched their ‘New Day’ print newspaper to much fanfare...
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John J Sills
John is variously described as a facilitator, consultant, or coach, passionate about helping people find new and practical ways of doing things, through a better understanding of their customers. In the last 20 years he's done everything from a selling haberdashery on a market stall to creating a global customer experience strategy for one of the biggest companies in the world, always with post-its. Lots of post-its. Everywhere. He now helps others with their customer-led strategies, propositions, and experiences at The Foundation, based in London, and writes at johnJsills.com.