What Makes an Insight Truly "Actionable"?

Conifer Research

October 30, 2020

In the market research world, we frequently hear the word “actionable” – many times in combination with the word “insight.” But what does an “actionable insight” really mean? Let’s start by breaking it down, first with the word “insight.”

(Merriam Webster)
in·​sight | \ ˈin-ˌsīt  \

Definition of
insight
1: the power or act of seeing into a situation
2: the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively

At Conifer, we think of an insight as something we come to see, feel, and know while in the midst of listening to and observing consumers. It is simply that indescribable “AHA” moment that provides such clarity there can be no return to whatever your previous paradigm was before you saw, felt or knew that.

Insights should take us beyond simple facts, data, or information, and help us understand, internalize, or see things from a different perspective.

Adding “actionable” to “insight” conveys a sense of movement and purpose, and perhaps more importantly, to using the insight in a way that advances the interests of the business. Specifically:

  • An insight (or set of insights) that has a clear call-to-action for the business
  • An insight that frames an opportunity space the business can act on
  • An insight that sparks new thinking and actions
  • An insight that speaks to both the user need and business opportunity

Anne Schorr, Conifer

For many companies, the process of determining how actionable an insight is tends to be viewed from a “practicality” lens — providing direction that is both technically possible and desirable by consumers and end users. For organizations and teams, it can sometimes be tempting to only validate insights when they fall squarely within what a “safe” range of what is believed to be feasible to control within a given time frame. Yet when operating only within the confines of what feels safe, teams may also inadvertently miss the growth and opportunity of the more transformative insights.

When something falls outside of the safe sweet spot, an opportunity for reinvention or exploring new brands or directions is the most actionable path.  It can be challenging for any team to think outside the confines of their brand or product, especially when the focus on those confines is such an ingrained part of a product or brand team's everyday worlds. This is where the voice of an outside research and insights consultancy like Conifer provides our greatest value: helping to shine a light on new and alternative pathways beyond the current confines or normal operations.

To help teams overcome the confines of safe/familiar, truly actionable insights should be information that is so compelling that the cost of not acting is too high: not acting is not an option.

A thought experiment in these moments is to think about your research insights with an eye towards the potential cost of the missed opportunity for the business. There are countless stories from companies who chose to do nothing and later paid the heavy price of regret. Maybe a competitor ran with it, the business or consumer landscape shifted faster than expected, or an industry acquisition or partnership levels the playing field to compete.

Actionable insights should help teams think beyond their current boxes and constraints. If you don’t have the brand equity needed to own a specific product or solution, you may end up needing to say “let’s invent a new brand instead.” If legacy factories capabilities or operational structure is preventing a team from delivering on the innovation pipeline needs, some new supply chain relationships may need to be explored. 

But it’s not just the challenge of maintaining an open mind. Actionable insights also have to contend with timing factors. For companies that operate within set innovation or horizon cycles, what is deemed actionable and what is not can be determined solely by fiscal-year calendar cycles. “Immediately actionable” can be dramatically different from what might be actionable two, five or 10 years out.

The global pandemic has pushed nearly all companies into unknown territories with new rules and drastically changed consumer viewpoints. The inherent contract between companies and customers has in many cases been broken (or at least cracked). Teams now have to contend with a new wave of accelerations and disruptions happening, as timelines don’t mean the same thing they used to, shopper mindsets and even user segments might not work quite the same. Everything from supply chains to channels and brand power are in the midst of change. Right now, immediately actionable means we must also be acknowledging the extended moment we find ourselves in. 

UX Research and Innovation Lead at Google

Lastly, actionable insights should do more than just shining a light on a path. It should help teams know what can be done next, or how to move forward, even if that is just through activation techniques. Hyuniee Jung, a Research and Innovation lead at Google put it best: "Foundational research can be a lot of 'what's going on?' and not a lot of 'what can we do about it?

Sometimes teams may be information rich, but need the right tools and frameworks to help them act on the insights in the context of their every day work and decision-making. This is one of the most challenging roles of the researcher/consultant relationship - providing our partners with the confidence, knowledge, and inspiration to know how to use our work.

The most actionable insights are those that can find the perfect balance of providing direction without being overly prescriptive, so that they can be applied and used in new ways. Some of the best insights become rubrics, guiding principles, formulas or frameworks that can be used over and over again to onboard new team members, explain a complex interaction, aid product teams in user-centered thinking, or even just provide a simple gut check for teams who are facing hard choices prioritizing a specific feature or use case.

An actionable insight then, must illuminate the paths forward. It must help provide the confidence to act, and become a catalyst for change. 


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