Incubation – or why ‘sleeping on it’ leads to better research insights

  • Dave Ellender

User research is hard. Making sense out of the messy contexts and behaviours we discover is demanding, especially under time pressure. Summaries can be produced quickly but all-too-often these remain superficial: stepping back from the trees to see the whole wood is rarely easy to do quickly. We all instinctively know this: some things are best slept on… but why is this?

Imagine you have done your research and have lots of details but are struggling to step back from the minutiae. Your team expect you to put it all together into something insightful, and quickly.

But staring at the details all day is not necessarily helpful. Then the next day as you sit on the bus on your way into work, the patterns start to emerge. Or in the shower in the morning at the weekend; or when you wake up in the middle of the night.


This is what psychologists call incubation: that moment of insight when an unsolved problem is set aside after a lack of progress, then bang, the solution emerges. There is a history of anecdotes relating to this: Archimedes in the bath discovering the displacement of water and then famously running naked down the streets of Syracuse shouting Eureka!; or Newton sitting in the orchard in Lincolnshire understanding why apples fall.

The trouble with these anecdotes is that we will never know whether Archimedes or Newton were consciously trying to crack their tricky problems at the time; or whether they were just knackered from all their thinking and were just taking a well-earned break… and, well, the rest is history.

But when you think about it, why would Archimedes get in the bath or Newton go and sit in the orchard? For no reason at all, of course. Or to put it another way: for the same reason we all would… to relax!

Possible theories

Academics don’t exactly agree on what is happening here but there are several theories:

  • Firstly, perhaps we are too tired and fail to see the solution consciously, so having a rest enables us to get there when we try again
  • Secondly, it could be that it just takes time for the knowledge we create to be assimilated fully: to meander down the brain’s synaptic alleyways and chime with something in there which is relevant but we didn’t initially realise was relevant
  • Or, thirdly, after a break we selectively forget things which are misleading, irrelevant and distracting, and only the truly valuable things remain
  • Or lastly, that what we are re-expressing the problem in different ways until a stable problem emerges which we weren’t able to define immediately

Incubation works

While incubation could be one or more of these things, there is little doubt that it works. A review of 29 different academic research studies was conducted on incubation and problem-solving by Sio and Ormerod in their paper ‘Does incubation enhance problem solving? A meta-analytic review’ (2009).

They found incubation has a real positive effect. They looked at studies between 1964 and 2007 and performed all sorts of statistical analyses across them as a whole. They found evidence that incubation helps solve creative problems. (Incidentally, a creative problem is defined as something with multiple solutions; for example, the consequences task where the participant is asked to list as many consequences of an event as possible.)

As a whole, these studies show that if we give ourselves more time to look at things, step away and do some incubation and then come back to things, it gives us more opportunity to assimilate the problem, explore what turn out to be dead-ends, change tack and identify wider connections with what we know already. In short, it helps us elicit new ideas.

User research for the Met Office

This is what happened with me on a user research project for the Met Office called User-Centred Weather. A series of 24 interviews was conducted over five days to explore a range of typical users and the context of checking the weather forecast. I was warned by members of the team that people love to talk about the weather and all aspects of their lives but not always very clearly. By the end of the interviews, my head was overflowing with details but no real sense of pattern.

Luckily, this project included some time and money to allow for the interview recordings to be transcribed by a typist, during which time I was able to try and forget as much as possible. Then, when the transcriptions came back within a few days, I was able to refocus on the details, coding the data qualitatively. I spent about a week doing this.

After another week, the beginnings of two hunches began to emerge. In the following week, these were distilled into some significant insights around behaviours, and their over-looked user needs. After that it was a short hop into generating a range of innovative product ideas.

Slowing down the analysis phase

Of course, slowing down the analysis of user research means getting the time and budget to be able to do this, either from your client or your team (thanks, Jay Spanton!). If you only have two days for analysis and have to stop, then at least point out if you think there is more insight in the data that you haven’t got to.

It’s okay to ask for more time, if not now then in the future. The better you get at conducting user research, the more data you get in a day and the more analysis time you could valuably spend afterwards. You are not being slow, you are being better.

It takes courage to step away and incubate – what if you forget things you didn’t make notes about or you can’t remember what your notes were about? You can help yourself by improving the quality of your notes so they clearly capture verbatim quotes and sequences of actual behaviours, not opinions and quick wins. Ideally, you get your interviews transcribed and re-watch your videos so when you come back after a break, you can re-access the details accurately.

In summary

In a nutshell, have a break between doing your user research and trying to make your insights. Don’t force the insights and instead take regular breaks, constantly. And don’t be persuaded to fill the gap with difficult challenges of other projects. Sio and Ormerod discovered that taking a break and spending the time doing some difficult cognitive task neutralises the incubation effect and does not help the generation of insights.

And if you ask me? Well, I always try and follow a day of user research with a day in the garden, myself…

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