The trick to crafting resonant insights and pitches

You have to know what you’re looking for.

How is surfing similar to conducting design research? What’s a ripe mango got to do with design insights? Is the ability to storytell a natural gift or can it be trained? In our very first episode with KK, we talk about how to deep dive into design research fruitfully, KK’s juicy secret to crafting good insights, and how storytelling in design builds resonance and empathy with your audience.


  • When deep diving through research, figure out what is the one thing that is “frustratingly holding people back” from doing what they want; it usually lies beyond the assumptions and the superficial
  • Similar issues may surface in various contexts and present itself differently—find that pattern and get to the core of the issue
  • When searching for good insights, you have to know what you’re looking for in order to find something useful—what is the objective?
  • R-I-P-E present different aspects of a good insight: resonant, illuminating, pithy, empowering
  • The Happy Hour Bar Test can be used to see if the insight you’ve shared has stuck—will your client be able to tell someone at happy hour later what you’ve just presented?
  • “A good narrative in design or in innovation helps give very clear focus on where is the central core. It helps contextualise every other detail… When it’s all in different directions, then you have a bit of a problem. That’s when you lose resonance.”
  • To hone the skill to storytell, it’s a “constant absorption of various sources”, it’s not possible to only ramp it up for the purpose of one project; “You almost have to just build it up over time, your sense, your sensibility. And then it becomes intuitive almost, and then that’s where you can use it to your advantage or in your projects.”
  • For designers just starting out at storytelling, you can try to analyse particular design decisions or features: “What were potentially some motivations? What constraints could they possibly have to make it? Why is it that it’s manifested exactly like that in features, in specifications, in design details, articulation, things like that?”
  • Once you know how to work backwards to understand the intention behind a design, you’ll know how to work forwards again when designing your own
  • “You cannot create a single narrative for all audiences”; if you truly want resonance, your audience must recognise a truth that they have in their minds, their assumptions, contexts, concerns—audience empathy!

Full Transcript

Hi KK, thanks for coming on to our podcast today. So for our audience who have not met you, could you briefly describe what you do at STUCK, and maybe also a little bit of what you have done before STUCK.

So I’m KK, I’m an innovation and strategy director at STUCK. Before this, I was working in Samsung for a while, on the regional product innovation team. But if I were to just describe what I do throughout my last 15 years or so, maybe it’s just helping people figure out what should we make next. That’s basically the one sentence that encapsulates the start till now so far. The “what” can be different. It started off with maybe a design, maybe a feature, innovation, maybe a new product line, new business line sometimes. And sometimes the “what” can be more vague, fuzzier, broader as well, like, what should STUCK be next? That’s also part of a “what” that I’m trying to figure out.

So what would you say is your favourite thing to do in this aspect of design?

So I’m a very unconventional designer, in a sense that, of course, a lot of people associate designers with people who can sketch very well—I had basically no art training. But I found it to be quite interesting.

Sometimes in the past, there were people who described me as the critical person in the creative circle, and a bit of a creative person in the critical circles. So it’s the intersection that I find quite interesting. A lot of it is about finding, amidst all of the various strengths in a project, which is the strength that really is the central core of a project, the bottleneck, where is the tension? Sometimes that manifests as a pain point, sometimes that manifests as a core dilemma, a paradox sometimes. And there is tremendous satisfaction when I discover, hey, there’s a really interesting paradox here, and if we can solve this, we can move mountains, or we can solve the problem, or we can create a breakthrough. So being able to dive into a spaghetti of issues, and identifying which of these is the strength, or core paradox, or core tension is one of my favourite things to do.


On how to deep dive into research to find good insights.

So maybe, could you help describe exactly how you go about swimming through that spaghetti and finding that goal? Or the meatball?

Yeah, chance of a meatball. First, if many of us will be familiar with the design practice, there’s a lot of research components: qualitative, quantitative. So whether it’s interviewing people, whether it’s reading through past publications, or talking to clients, stakeholders, other people who have been through this before—figure out why are they still stuck? What is it that’s frustratingly holding people back? And what is it that they actually want to do beyond the superficial or beyond the assumptions, which is also another typical thing? It’s usually never one of this, or one lens of this.

But when you swim through enough of these various sources and data points, sometimes repetition or a pattern starts surfacing, right? You see a similar issue surfacing in various contexts, presented slightly differently, but there’s some core thread around it. And so you pick it up.

And when you pick up enough thread, then you form maybe a string. Ultimately, as you sift through again, you get to the core gist of it.

So in this pattern recognition or being able to sift through, would you say that it’s more of a trained thing, like with experience, with doing it over and over again? Or would you say there’s also a little bit of that instinctive kind of ability to find and sense certain patterns that are going on?

I would say it’s probably both. Maybe it’s a bit like eating right. If you are the kind of foodie, you really love food, you’ll go to maybe different stalls that sell the same food and then you’ll try to see: what is it that’s working here? And if you’re very mindful about it, maybe you’ll be thinking about: what is the different ingredient that I’m tasting here? That’s a slightly different something here. So, in that situation, you might ask, is that training or is that DNA? Do I have a special tongue that can taste the difference?

Some people may be able to grasp more intuitively. But with training, everybody really can do it, right?

The key here is to be able to know what you’re looking for. So you don’t mistake just swimming around purposelessly—versus I am swimming around, but I kind of know what I’m looking for.

So when I encounter it, and I know to pick it up, and I know how to frame it, and how to understand it, or how to process it. That’s the part where some training definitely helps.

So say when you’re swimming through that information, right? And you kind of feel that, okay, this is a path that I’m trying, and I’m trying to find that gold nugget. And maybe as you’re swimming and swimming, you feel like you’re going deeper and deeper into the deep end. And so how do you know then when it’s worth it to continue or when you should u-turn and find another path?

Again, it’s a bit like half instinct, half experience, perhaps. The core thing to differentiate whether this is futile, whether I’m just going around in circles, is to recall: what is the objective again?

So if I take the analogy of swimming, maybe currents are bringing me all over the place. And if I don’t know where I’m going, all I do is paddle. And between the paddling and the inherent water current, maybe I end up somewhere. Now, is that somewhere a good place to be? It depends. Is that where you want to go in the first place? So it’s the same thing in terms of data diving or data swimming, or insight swimming, or whatever you call it. If you don’t have a goal, or if you don’t have a sense, at least directionally, you might not know precisely, what is it that you’re looking for, but directionally, if I’m heading somewhere. And through my swimming, or even the natural current of the project momentum, it can carry me there, then it’s good. If you feel like, you know what, I’m going around in circles relative to where I want to be, then yes, of course, it’s not very good. And of course, if you are going further and further away from the objective, that I guess that’s objectively bad.

So it sounds like the key is to, before you jump in the pool, you must know where you want to go, to have some sort of sense before you decide to just deep dive and find.



On what makes a good insight.

Okay. So, I mean, once you’ve managed to find these insights or these nuggets, and in piecing them together, how do you tend to communicate this or put them together in a way that is understandable to, be it your clients, be it just general public? What are some key tools that you actually use to storytell these things?

So analogies, of course, are quite useful. Sometimes I think of insights like a ripe mango. It’s juicy, it’s nice, it’s just tempting, you want to sink your teeth into it. And if you say, RIPE, R-I-P-E, they represent different aspects of a good insight, in my view.

So R for Resonance. So when I speak it, or when I declare the insight, for example, do the people whom you are studying, for example, in a particular research, say, “That’s so me! You know something about me that I didn’t even know myself. And I feel such a strong resonance to what you’ve just described.” I think when you get that, you know, that it’s true, right? There’s a certain truth. And because there’s a certain truth, the resonance is established. So that’s one aspect.

The second one: Illuminating. So I used to work for refrigerator innovation. We have this saying where “Insight are a bit like a refrigerator. When you look into it, a light should come on.”

So whether or not an insight gives you that stereotypical aha! moment, “That’s something that I never thought of like that before!”

Sometimes it’s not even a new observation, but just a way to describe that. Then again, it’s different. And because of the way you’re seeing it differently, you have new opportunities and new possibilities. So that’s illuminating.

P is Pithy. I don’t know what’s the right way to pronounce it—but short. A lot of research-oriented people, they are in research because they love to dig deep. And they love to know more and more. But there’s also a counterpoint to that, where if you are not able to succinctly describe it, it’s very hard to get traction, it’s very hard to communicate. I have also this test, what I call the Happy Hour Bar Test. So if I tell you an insight about a particular project today, if you are the client, for example, say you have a happy hour later on with your friends and colleagues, are you able to tell someone else what I’ve just presented? So if I presented a seven-by-seven framework that is very cumbersome to talk about, there’s no way you can even remember, not to mention repeat.

But if I’m able to distil it down to something that’s very short, succinct, then it’s much more likely for you to be able to spread it. This is also why proverbs work so much better than very long stories. Because for long stories, you have to set up all the narrative context and everything. It takes time to get into it.

Of course, the last part of R-I-P-E, E—is it empowering, is it enabling? Does it actually provoke some kind of actionable? Whether it’s design, whether it’s a creation? Or is it just a passive observation? If it could push the team or the energy of problem solving or innovation in a certain direction, I think that’s very strong. So that’s what I look for. So think of it as a ripe mango. That’s how I mentally categorise.

That was so illuminating! Did you come up with that framework yourself?

In a way, yes. There are various people who have asked me in my past, “What is a good insight?” So again, of course, I try to establish the different facets of insights, and this is why you have the 4 alphabets, but it’s to me just as important to be able to connect these four words so that I can connect it to a single word. And then I can mentally conjure the image of a juicy mango. That’s the way I can create a shortcut on how to even remember all of these things, right?

If you tell me what are the top four characteristics of insight, I might not be able to easily tell it. But if you ask me, okay, just remember that mango. What’s a good mango? A ripe mango is a good mango. Wow, look at that juicy mango. Immediately you’re able to, from there, build your structure into, okay, now I remember these are the four key aspects of a good insight.

I feel like this ripe mango thing is in itself using the four factors that you just described. It reminds me of this, back in secondary school, we learn a lot of these kinds of acronyms to remember. And until now, I still remember the one where we learn for essay writing in history, it’s called PEEL. I think it’s quite common in schools. Because the most important is you have to state your Point, then you have to give your Example, and then your Elaboration, and then you have to have your Link back to your point. And my teacher always said that, “If you don’t have the L, you will pee, you will pee on the floor, if you don’t have the L to finish your PEEL.” And yeah, until now I actually still remember it and still make use of it in my writing as well.

Yes, that is the power of acronyms and a vivid imagery.


On the importance of having a core to your design/innovation narrative.

Yeah, really. Now, I will always imagine the mango when I’m sieving through my insights, and all. Yeah, cool. So how do you actually see this storytelling fitting in specifically with design? And how do you think this differs from other forms of narratives in other fields?

I don’t know enough about narratives in other fields. I think when you talk about storytelling, everybody usually gravitates to maybe movies, right? The hero’s journey, things like that. Or various, there’s like six key movie arcs that’s always true. Things like that. I have not really actually been able to apply them very fruitfully in my own practice in innovation. But I do see the commonality across all of this.

It is that, a good narrative in design or in innovation helps give very clear focus on where is the central core. It helps contextualise every other detail.

Whether it’s physical, it’s a small feature, it’s the interaction of it, and all of this—they need to all point towards a common core. So when you have that, you know that everything is in sync, and you almost instinctively feel, from positioning to messaging to innovation to feature to design and the manifestation of it, they’re all very aligned. And when that happens, it’s special.

In the same way where movies are, you might have a core narrative, but then the way the set is expressed and designed, or the way the soundtrack contributes to it, the way the actors and the characters contribute to it, they also all have to align to this central core. And when it’s in alignment, everything is beautiful. It’s a work of art. When it’s all in different directions, then you have a bit of a problem. That’s when you lose resonance. That’s when you know something’s wrong, weird, “I can’t quite pinpoint what is it about it”. Maybe the symptoms of this happening in innovation and design typically tends to be, “I don’t know what’s wrong. I think we did all the right things, but it somehow feels lacklustre.”

“Lacklustre” itself is an interesting word, right? Because, back to the point of illumination. Lacklustre—lustre means light, it’s lacking the light.

So when you feel the project is just, “Yeah it’s kind of there. We seem to be doing all the right things in terms of checkboxes and activities, but why is it that it’s not giving me that sense of, it’s a project that’s singing in the rhythm?” Quite often it is this light that is not shining.

It is not shining through yet, through all of it. And in the same way where we see movies, in the same way we see innovation or design projects, that’s how I also see the relationship between the various activities that we are doing in relation to the core narrative. Yeah, that’s the parallel that I see.


On how you can start to build your storytelling arsenal.

Okay! Maybe specifically to storytelling, do you have one or two frameworks that you always keep in mind when you’re trying to craft that story?

I actually don’t. I don’t know whether I do have a process or not, or it’s almost this intuitive amalgamation of all kinds of sources. I have tried to set a structure before, and then it didn’t really work very well for me, because then it becomes fill in the blanks, then it becomes—again, that soul is missing, it’s almost like. But the more productive way for me is just knowing that, at the end, I want a direction and a story that’s like that. And what do I have now, and almost trying to follow the arc.

It’s almost like surfing, where you can’t really command how the waves should turn, but you know how to ride it.

You might fall a few times, but I think surfing is maybe a better metaphor than something that I can drive right from the start, I know exactly how to do it, I have a motor behind to power the story through. It tends to be, you are half at the mercy of what you have, in terms of your data points or things like that, and half knowing where you want to go, can you use this to glide through and to get there.

So it’s kind of a little bit like having a bunch of different ways to storytell in your arsenal and you figure out okay, in this particular situation, this project, we need to tell this a certain way and then we can figure out what is best for the situation.

Yes. And of course, on your own if you want to go very deep into this ability, then having good references help, right? Look at the advertising industry, for example, they are master storytellers. Because they need to tell the story of maybe a 200 year-old company with 5000 people in 5 seconds, or 10 seconds or 30 seconds. So they have to hone a certain sense of being able to cut straight to the point, articulate clearly, short, memorably. So you could be looking at that. You could of course again, look at movies and things like that. You could look at fiction to help you in storytelling.

So a lot of this is constant absorption of various sources. You can’t really do it just for this project, “Okay, I need to ramp up right now. Tell me what are the three key points. And once I master that process, I can do it.” It’s a bit harder than that.

You almost have to just build it up over time, your sense, your sensibility. And then it becomes intuitive almost, and then that’s where you can use it to your advantage or in your projects. You can apply it easily.

It’s the same as cooking again. You could try to follow a recipe, but then that’s replication. But if you wanted to create a new dish, you do have to have a lot of inherent background knowledge: how cooking works, temperatures, ingredients, flavours, textures, how they all can mix. So if you were already eating a lot, and paying attention to all of this throughout your past, this becomes instinct. But if you were completely new, then this becomes a very forced activity, which is probably both difficult and painful.

So for new designers or even students who want to start getting into storytelling, is there maybe one or two things that you could recommend them start doing? Is it about just reading more or constantly having exposure to these things?

I would say, of course, exposure is good. The other aspect that people tend to forget is that design students love to design, right? And the shiniest part of the design is the part that is tangible, visual, physical, maybe. And for people who are trying to get into this, I would encourage to look for the background, the buried, the rationale.

If you look at a particular design decision or feature, why is it like that? What were potentially some motivations? What constraints could they possibly have to make it? Why is it that it’s manifested exactly like that in features, in specifications, in design details, articulation, things like that.

And the more you dig into this rabbit hole of why’s and the stories behind, I think you have yourself a very rich sense of… If you can work backwards from an object, you know how to work forwards again when you’re trying to create a new thing. So that’s always an underplayed part of design training that schools are actually training people pretty well for, but they’re not maybe so recognised as a designer’s capability, to be able to see something and try to link back on the context and manifestations and insights and problems and constraints and tensions that might surround every piece of object that we have around us today.

So would you say that this is a newer skillset that designers have to start developing for themselves? Or would you say that it’s kind of always been there, just never really like, above the surface?

Yeah, actually, I would think it’s not necessarily new. If anything, I would assume that this is inherently part of a core design process anyway. Of course, the difference might be whether we have consciously labelled this as, whether it’s a skillset or as a process, that might be the difference. It’s a bit similar to Design versus Design Thinking. Is that a new thing that was just recently discovered in the last century? I don’t think so. But is it a way to frame and describe what happens? Yes. So similarly, for storytelling and design. I would assume any designers, anybody who designs anything, would have, whether explicitly or intuitively, some sense of, “There’s something here that I’m trying to get done. There’s something that’s not so well done. And I’m trying to get around it, I’m trying to make it better. I’m trying to tell people why this is better.” That part has always been there.


On crafting narratives for different audiences and having audience empathy.

So when you have a project that you want to showcase, you want to tell, and you have multiple audience. Do you have to factor that into the consideration when you are trying to craft that story? And how do you then create a narrative that resonates with many different audience?

I think the short answer is, you cannot create a single narrative for all audiences. So if you really want it to resonate—again, ripe mango first R—resonance happens when the audience recognises a truth that they have in their minds, what you are sharing to them. So, depending on your audience, what’s in their minds are completely different, right? So if you are presenting a design, whether it’s an object or product, for example, someone from the finance team sees completely different things from someone from the design team and engineering team, and so on.

So the key for narrative is not to say that you can have one master narrative to win them all. But in the ability to know what is it that’s in your audience’s mind. What might be some of their assumptions, contexts, concerns? And then knowing how your design or your product or your innovation answers to their mental context. If you can do that, you establish resonance. If you cannot do that, you get a polite “Thank you.” That’s usually the difference.

So you talked a little bit about how to determine that resonance, right? So does it just boil down to empathy? And being able to understand from that particular audience’s standpoint, what would they be looking out for?

For sure. So, just now, when I was talking about resonance, I talked primarily about user empathy. Perhaps a very neglected part of empathy is actually your audience empathy. Sometimes, we spend a lot of time… or design education or training teaches us to be very empathetic towards the users, right? We really have to put ourselves in their shoes. We ought to apply the same level of empathy towards everybody else that has a stake in this.

Maybe in an agency context, for the client who is trying to push this through, what are their bottlenecks? What are their pain points? What will help them versus what is not so useful? Or various departments, what is the finance person’s issues with this? Where you see innovation, they may see risk. Or they may see problems or compliance issues or things like that. And if you are not able to empathise with that, your chance of having traction is actually a lot lower. The same way that if you don’t have empathy for your end users, the chance of them buying your product, or having traction with them is a lot lower.

So empathy applies to all: users, but also other stakeholders. And when you have that, the way you talk, or the way your narrative shifts, the way you describe your design, or innovation will shift as well. Because you know what they care about, and you know how you can address their concerns or their issues.

Yeah, cool. It feel like a lot of times, when we talk about design, we always go into the hard skills, like the CADing, sketching. And I don’t know whether I caught you correctly, but similar to you, I can’t do a lot of very beautiful sketches, or I’m not that great with form. Which are all very typical hard skills of design. So it’s really cool hearing from you on quite a different angle to design. So yeah, thank you for coming down today to talk to us.

Thank you for this conversation.

We’ll be sure to get you back on when we have more questions.


Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong


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