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Listen to What I Mean, Not What I Say

In college, I had a chemistry professor (Dr. E) who was the epitome of the absent-minded genius. After stumbling over her words (a frequent occurrence) and seeing our perplexed faces, she’d proclaim: “Listen to what I mean — not what I say.”

I was thinking about her the other day, and it occurred to me that this phrase also applies to the development of impactful insights. Allow me to explain.

When engaging people in qualitative research, 80% of the feedback can be categorized into four areas: needs, opinions, solutions, and specifications. This information is typically top-of-mind and is somewhat easy to uncover.


Let’s start with needs. Needs are the essential input to product design. When chatting with a user, needs can be identified by asking questions that prompt these responses:
“I wish that…”
“Wouldn’t it be great if…”
“It really bothers me when…”
“Why doesn’t someone…”
Engineers and designers are trained to convert this feedback into specific product attributes.


Study participants will also freely give their opinions and express them in first or third person. For example, you’ll hear comments prefaced with: “I think,” “We think,” or “She thinks.” Frequently, you will hear, “I feel,” or “we feel,” but these “feel” comments are rarely a statement of real emotion.


Occasionally in feedback sessions, you will have a person who can rapidly articulate a solution and even draw it for you. While these ideas can be helpful, their real value comes when you can de-couple the solution from the underlying need or motivation. For what reasons are the proposed solutions important?

Specifications are easy for people


For most people, providing specifications is easy as they are sensory and measurable. In a feedback session you’ll hear: “I want this button to be blue,” “I want a lemon scent,” or “please make the screen larger.” Again, this is all great feedback, but it is necessary to determine the fundamental reasons these details are important.

Effective Ideation Hinges on Insight

A leading business imperative is expansive innovation: new-to-world or new-to-company products or breakout enhancements that will drive greater utilization. This requires uncovering new areas of consumer and customer demand. Thus, effective ideation hinges on the insight, which is a deep and intuitive understanding of people. Insights are always a belief or motivation enveloped in emotions. Here’s the kicker: rarely do participants directly communicate these things.

The identification of insights depends on two skills: adept interviewing and insightful interpretation. The best interviewer is one who can nudge people into a deeper conversation, is observant of body language and facial expressions, and can then prompt people to verbally express what is behind the observed behaviors.

Interpretation of feedback is also essential. In thinking about my chemistry professor and her infamous phrase, I had my Eureka! moment. The interpreter needs to have the same wisdom as my chemistry professor: it’s what people mean and not what they say that matters. Thanks to Dr. E for reminding me what’s important.

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