Designers love to talk about their process. From brainstorming wacky ideas to prototyping potential solutions, there is a lot to love.
But one of the most critical parts of the design process that is seldom talked about at conferences and meetups is synthesizing user research. That is why I jumped at the opportunity to give a talk about conducting proper synthesis at the Service Design Jam conference in San Francisco.
In this post I’ll be dropping some knowledge I have acquired from my past instructors at California College of the Arts and my professional career working as a Product Designer at companies large and small.
What is synthesis?
For those who are new to the design industry, synthesis takes place right after you have a clear problem you have been tasked with solving and you have conducted interviews with key stakeholders and customers.
It is important to note that the problem you are solving for might change as a result of synthesis and that’s ok! Another thing to keep in mind is that synthesis and brainstorming solutions should always be separate parts of your process.
There are four steps I take to synthesize my research:
- Document interviews
- Affinity cluster
- Generate insight statements
- Form how might we questions
Why synthesis matters
Unfortunately research and synthesis are undervalued in organizations. Often times, there is a tight timeline or small budget for a project, and this puts pressure on designers to rush through this part of their process in order to “deliver” something.
"It doesn’t matter how much research you do if the people who have acquired the most knowledge write a report and move on." — Erika Hall
We must be constantly asserting the value of research and synthesis for one key reason: if we make something no one will use, then the entire project’s budget will have gone to waste. A similar risk presents itself when research and synthesis are conducted but then don’t inform our concepts and designs. Erica Hall states this very eloquently in her book Just Enough Research.
A good synthesis session always begins with proper documentation. When transcribing interviews, make sure to keep the information concise. A good rule of thumb is to only use 1–2 sentences per post it note. I also make it a habit of writing down the interviewees initials in the bottom right hand corner for reference.
When transcribing my notes, I use different colors of post it notes to differentiate between three types of information:
Observations are indirect quotes or recurring patterns you noticed throughout an interview
For example, if I was researching retirement homes, I might have noticed that many seniors mentioned they had to give up many of their personal belongings before moving in.
Direct quotes capture the exact words of the interviewee
It’s good practice to take photo and audio documentation of each interview in case you need it for future reference.
Interpretations are underlying motivations or assumptions that were not explicitly mentioned
These are the most difficult to distinguish. Continuing my example, I might have noticed in my research that when seniors brought up their family members, their body language suggested that they would like them to visit more frequently.
"Affinity clustering is a process used to externalize and meaningfully cluster observations and insights from research, keeping design teams grounded in data as they design." - Universal Methods of Design
Once the information is up on a wall, affinity clustering helps naturally group information together based on emerging themes we discover in the data. After grouping all of the information, label each category. These groups or “buckets” lay the foundation for the rest of the synthesis process.
There will inevitably be outliers that won’t fit into any one category. If the information on these post its aren’t relevant to the problem you are trying to address, feel free to discard them.
Generating insight statements
This is where the magic happens. When everything is grouped, you will begin seeing unmet needs and desires of the people you interviewed. These are what we call research findings, otherwise known as insight statements.
If you aren’t having lightbulbs go off in your head at this stage of synthesis, it is probably a good indicator that you need to interview more people.
Continuing my previous example, my insight statement might read something like this: “Seniors living in retirement homes want the mobility to visit their family members but don’t have any methods for doing so without a car.” Note that I am merely framing an existing problem.
Forming how might we questions
Before coming up thousands of amazing ideas, reframing insight statements as questions enables us to think opportunistically about some of the underlying problems we uncovered. By placing how might we at the beginning of each question, we are able to provide a framework for brainstorming solutions centered around real human centered needs.
My insight statement would be reframed as follows: “How might we enable senior citizens living in retirement homes to safely visit their families?” To learn more about how to construct great how might we questions, I would highly recommend reading IDEO’s Design Kit.
Synthesis is one of my favorite parts of the design process because it enables us to build empathy with the people we are designing for. I hope this enables you and your team to more effectively design wonderful products and services that surprise and delight your users.
You can find a digital version of my Service Design Jam presentation here. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Andrea Fineman for encouraging me to be a speaker at the event and Tiffany Eaton for encouraging me to write.
This article was originally published on Daniel's Medium page.