Insights in Action: Impactful Research to Fuel Innovation

A group of people brainstorming around a table.

Customer research and insights, when done well, can fuel creativity, innovation, and problem solving. But what makes a good insight? And how do you use your research and insights to help drive prioritization and decision making?

In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, Arianna McClain, Head of Research and Insights at Cruise, discusses what makes a good insight, the difference between a finding and an insight, how to make customer research impactful, and how to build narratives from insights to align and compel stakeholders.

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts


Definition of an Insight

According to Arianna, the goal of customer research is to understand how a person might feel, think, perceive or engage with a product, service, experience, brand, or company. She says that when doing customer research, there’s a difference between a finding and an insight. A finding is something objective, an observation. An insight, on the other hand, is meant to look deeper into a situation. It’s often unexpected and drives innovation. The finding might be “people do X”; the insight tells you why people engage in that behavior.


A girl standing on a chair reaching for a book.

We can see the difference between a finding and an insight with an example. If you see a child reaching for a book on a bookshelf, that might be a finding, or observation. But an insight behind that action, which could be uncovered by sitting down to talk to them, is that they're actually asserting their independence by getting a chair to reach the book themselves without help. In this way, insights aim to understand the deeper meaning behind an obvious behavior.

“An insight is meant to look deeper into something. It's the power to see into a situation.”
Arianna McClain, Head of Research & Insights, Cruise



Qualitative vs. Quantitative Insights

While a lot of researchers view themselves as either qualitative or quantitative, Arianna recommends that everyone be mixed-method. She says that for every study, no matter how big or small, you should have a quantitative and a qualitative component.

For example, if you're looking at a lot of data on how people are using your product, you need to also try to physically observe at least one session to provide some context about why you might be seeing those numbers in the data. And if you're engaging in a lot of qualitative interviews, you need at least one survey question to really understand and quantify the severity or frequency of what you're hearing.


Learn more about customer insights and research in our new Human-Centered Insights Certificate.


Tools for Gathering Insights

For Arianna, the most valuable thing about an insight is that it is impactful and actionable. She says that to do this, you need to make sure that you are quantifying the severity and that it's clearly communicated so it can be prioritized. The role of research is to understand how to improve the user experience, but not every pain point impacts user experience in the same way.

Arianna gives an example from her work on a fully autonomous vehicle at Cruise called the Origin. With the Origin, she went to the product team with two insights: that there were uncomfortable headrests, and that adding more screens would make the experience more magical. Fixing an uncomfortable headrest was prioritized because the issue was detrimental—it could cause discomfort, harm, and might cause people to never take a ride again.

A chart that compares the impacts of an uncomfortable headrest and number of screens in the Origin autonomous vehicle.


Without quantifying severity, the leadership team may simply look at how much each improvement costs to make decisions. The role of research is to help the business understand the right changes that can improve metrics, drive retention and acquisition, and enable leaders to move forward.

One way to measure and quantify the severity of user needs is a simple survey asking people, “How would you rate the experience that you just had?” A Likert scale that has various numbers and responses, such as a scale from 1 to 9 or -5 to 5 (with 0 being neutral), enables you to better understand the user’s experience. Is it broken, neutral, working, or magical? Whether it’s an app or a ride in a self-driving car, the experience can then be put on a scale.

A Likert scale that asks “How would you rate the experience you just had?” and “If we DID NOT fix this [pain point]...” and “If we DID fix this [pain point]...”


After that, you can ask additional questions to understand the ROI, or return on investment, for fixing a pain point. For example, if the Origin were to have more screens, what would be the added benefit? Would it make the experience significantly better? Would the user take more rides, or is it just a nice to have?

Or if a pain point weren’t fixed, like an uncomfortable headrest, would the user never return? Does it mean they’d be reluctant to use the service? Does it mean they’d still use it but it would annoy them? Likert scales like this allow you to understand how much energy, time, and money to put into fixing the pain points identified.



“Not every pain point impacts the user experience in the same way.”
Arianna McClain, Head of Research & Insights, Cruise



How to Make Customer Research Impactful

Arianna says that the biggest mistake that researchers can make is working in a silo. With her team members coming from so many different companies, each with their own process, she created what they call the “Golden Workflow,” which defines what success looks like for research at Cruise.

A chart of the Golden Workflow research process, with steps 1. Research Initiation 2. Research Definition 3. Research Execution and Data Collection 4. Analysis 5. Result Share-Out and Research Activation and 6. Research Advocacy.


The process begins with research initiation, which includes identifying all major stakeholders and becoming familiar with relevant documents and spaces. Before starting a project from scratch, look at what work has been done in the past. Evaluate if research is needed, or if you simply need to redirect people to something that already exists.

In the research definition phase, align with your stakeholders and develop a research plan. Make sure that they're on board with the questions that you're answering, and figure out what data they need to know to move forward.

But at the end of the day, Arianna emphasizes that no matter what phase of the research process you’re in, whether it's research execution or analysis or sharing out, the one thing that must remain consistent is aligning with stakeholders every step of the way—and making sure you're communicating clearly and concisely.


About the Speaker

Arianna McClain
Head of Research & Insights, Cruise

Arianna McClain is the Head of Research & Insights at Cruise, leading a team that works across Cruise’s vehicle programs, internal tools, and consumer products. Her team collaborates on a broad range of critical company challenges and opportunities, such as helping to define company metrics, improve engineering and fleet operations workflows and products, and design Cruise's future ride-hailing and delivery experience.

Before joining Cruise, Arianna's career spanned startups, consulting, and academia. She previously built and led the research function at DoorDash to understand the needs of Consumers, Dashers, and Merchants in order to design a product that all three users love using. Arianna also worked at IDEO to help grow the Design & Data function and worked as a behavioral research scientist at Stanford's School of Medicine.


If you want to learn more about insights and customer research, check out our new Human-Centered Insights Certificate.

Courses Starting Soon

Foundations In Design Thinking - IDEO U Certificate
Designing Strategy Course from IDEO U