Insight Combination

What is it?

Insight combination is a method to quickly generate a lot of design ideas and explicitly tie these ideas to contextual research and the cultural nuances of your target audience. Insight combination leverages forced provocation—the ability to constantly ask and answer "what if" without fear of critique. Insights from contextual research combine with trends and patterns to form design constraints that drive "what if" questions.

Insight is derived from user research and interpretation. We'll use the insight as a point of departure for creative ideation. Examples of insights are "Users who take medication seek both privacy and community," and "People who are diagnosed with a disease immediately see the world in a new way."

Trends—changes in technology, social norms, fashion, or politics—typically reflect larger emotional changes in groups or subcultures. Examples are "People are spending more time at home doing inexpensive activities" and "Parents are unaware of their children's online behavior." Again, both trend statements are provocative and unsubstantiated, but they're also derived from personal observation and interactions.

To combine insights with trends, you must methodically examine each one along with each facet of the design problem that has been deemed useful or important. The method actively produces new ideas. Ideas expand and become fleshed out in a nonlinear fashion, jumping over the expected to arrive at the unexpected.

How do I do it?

For best results, combine insights after you conduct contextual research:

1. Identify insights in your transcripts, concept maps, and other research records and tools. An insight starts with something provocative, interesting, unique, or surprising. When you find these things, highlight them and form a "why" question about it: Why did the user do something? Why did a person respond in a certain way? Why is the system set up with certain rules or processes?

Then answer the why question, telling a credible story. The answer usually holds an insight. Frame each insight as a provocative statement of fact, and write it on a yellow note card. Consider using different colors for each area of insight. As a guideline, try to identify approximately 50 insights in every two hours of transcript.

2. Identify trends in politics, television, film, art, food, music, technology, and other cultural aspects; write or draw them on blue note cards.

3. Combine a design trend with an insight at random, mingling the blue and yellow cards. Working quickly with a single insight and a single trend in hand, create a new design idea to use in the context of your design opportunity. What new product, system, or service can you envision that leverages the trend to fulfill the needs represented on the insight? Write or draw the new design idea on a green card. Spend no more than 60 seconds per design idea; the goal is to identify as many ideas as possible, rather than trying to come up with just one good idea.

When should I use it?

Use insight combination to generate ideas to existing problems without attention to constraints. As you learn more about a given topic, you'll become aware of existing domain constraints. Insight combination reminds you that these constraints can be flexible. It also forces you to re-examine what matters most in the topic or domain.

What is the output, and how can I use it?

Insight combination results in hundreds of different design "seeds"—initial, incomplete design ideas that can spawn further ideation and that you can refine into finished design concepts. You can analyze these seeds through various techniques, such as the 2x2 described above, to help identify the most feasible ideas.

Where can I learn more?

Read "Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis" by Jon Kolko, at

Continue to the Next Section:
Methods for Creating New Designs

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving