Discovering customer insights: how-to, tools, tips & tricks

For those aware of design thinking, one of the most powerful aspects of this method is to come up with mini revelations about your user that enable you to see the initial design challenge in a different limelight, and thus come up with radically new ways and ideas on how to tackle it.

Those mini revelations are called customer insights.

Here are some defining criteria of a good insight:

  1. It’s immediately derived from the stories you’ve collected from the users.
  2. It’s something not obvious: you wouldn’t have known it haven’t you gone on empathy research and interacted with the user.
  3. It sheds light on what the user cares about, needs and wants.
  4. It sparks creativity and triggers the team to come up with novel ideas.

Now, unveiling insights is the most challenging part of design thinking. Insights aren’t a given: they are informed conclusions we as a team makes based on the vast amount of empathy research conducted about the people we want to serve. Insights are crafted. And just like any skill, the more you practice, the better you become at it. 

With this article, we wish to accelerate your learning journey from distilling user stories to crafting customer insights, by providing you with a step-by-step guide, guiding you from unpacking to selecting those key insights that will fuel your team to come up with innovative ideas. 


Step 1

Go and talk to your users

First, conduct empathy research: go and talk to your users, immerse yourself in their lives and gain a better and broader understanding about who they are and what they care for. 

We recommend people to conduct empathy field trips in pairs. This way, one person can focus on asking the right questions and ensuring her/his full attention is with the user, while the other one is focused on taking notes

If you’re looking for a tool that can help your team to structure interviews with your users, we have a standard interview guide template to get you off the ground. 

So what’s next? How do you go from collections of user stories to distilling them into insights? This is what this article is all about. Below you will find each step clearly explained that will guide your team from a bunch of user-based raw data to crafted insights.


Problem validation questions


Print the fragment cards

The fragment card template is designed to bring structure to the stories and observations uncovered during empathy research. It facilitates the design team to document stories and observations and to synthesize them into real need statements.

Download the PDF and print it on an A3.



Synthesize with your partner in crime

Meet with the partner you went for interviews with. Bring the fragment cards, grab some post-it notes and sharpies. 

Within your pair, retell the stories you heard or observed from your user and jot them down on the section “stories/observations” in the fragment card template

You know your empathy research has led to fertile results when you land with user stories containing elements of contradictions, surprises or tensions.

Once the user stories are documented, read through those stories. What are the underlying needs the user has shared with us? Formulate them into needs statements and stick them onto the section “framing real needs” of the fragment card template.

Tip 1: stories, quotes, and observations collected onto the fragment cards should come from the users. This is not the place for you to write down your assumptions about the users. 

Tip 2: one fragment card per user interview/observation trip.


Fragment card filled out.



Download the linear unpacking template

So far you’ve worked in pairs. Linear unpacking will be the first step you will do as a whole team. It’s a structured approach for design teams to align on the stories, observations and real need statements collected and crafted while working as pairs. Download and print the PDF to get started.




Synthesize the customer insights as a team

Each pair takes a turn to read out loud the post-its from their fragment cards and transfer them to the linear unpacking template. Who’s the person you interacted with? What were some compelling stories you collected? What were their needs? 


You do this until all pairs have shared their fragment cards.

While listening, others members have the opportunity to ask questions about the stories heard and the crafted need statements in order to fine-tune them and make them even richer. All additional remarks should be documented on post-its and correctly be placed on the template to populate it further. This is also a chance for others to help the pairs see how additional dots connect and to come up with new need statements that they didn’t uncover.

Tip: as a pair, you don’t have to share the stories of all the users you’ve interacted with. In pairs, you can pick the stories that contained the most interesting elements of tensions, contradictions, and surprises, and share those in the larger group setting.



Turn stories & needs into insights

By now you have a wall of user stories and have identified needs, frustrations, and aspirations your users are sitting on.

Looking at this wall of needs, informed by the stories where they originated from, can you identify patterns or clusters? What’s the overarching themes for the identified needs clusters?

Ask yourself now the next question: what informed conclusion can you make about what the user care for, referring to the different identified needs and clusters?

This question will guide you in making inferences about the underlying drivers and motivations explaining why the users do what they do. They will turn into your first draft of customer insights which you can then stick onto the insights section of the linear unpacking template

Write down the compelling user need identified during empathy. In order to dig deeper and make an informed conclusion, ask yourself the following question:

  • What’s the underlying emotional driver for this need? (“because…”)
  • What’s a potential tension that hinders the user from meeting this need? (“but…”)
  • What was surprising you find out about the need? (“surprisingly…”)


Tip 1: what we see over and over again, is that the quality of your insights is directly correlated with the quality of the empathy research. The deeper you went during your field trips by asking why’s, by getting to know the person behind the problem better, the more insightful your informed conclusions will be.

Tip 2: one need statement/cluster can lead to multiple informed conclusions aka insight statements.



Identify key insights to focus on

There’s a high chance the team came up with multiple insight statements. The question then follows: which ones should we take forward?

To facilitate the team’s discussion about which insight statements to take forward and which not, we have made the insights selector tool. The tools allow the team to map out the insights based on their level of non-obviousness and relevance towards the design challenge, which are 2 key criteria that define whether the insights will lead to innovative ideas relevant towards the design challenge at hand or not.

You reached the end of this journey. You started from problem interviews, and you ended up with a couple of clear, deep, novel insights. These insights will be the starting point for your next phase: the ideation session. Good luck, and reach out to us in case you need tailored support for your empathy research phase.


I’m Yin Lei Zhang, Design Strategist @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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