Synthesis: it doesn’t matter how you categorise your post-it notes
The archetypal image of my industry is a designer looking pensive in front of a wall full of post-it notes.
Sorting post-it notes is easy enough, but that’s analysis, not synthesis¹. When you’re doing synthesis, your goal isn’t categorisation. It’s to understand not just how this data fits, but what this data means. And that meaning is often completely unrelated to the categories you’ve put the data into.
You do still need to sort your data
So if it doesn’t matter how you categorise your post-it notes, why do we bother? We bother because the act of looking at each data point and making a decision to put it somewhere, gets your brain working and making the connections you need to make sense of everything.
I have a colleague who believes you could sort the data into alphabetical order and it would have the same impact. It’s the act of sorting, not what you sort it into, that’s important. That might be taking it too far, but there’s definitely something there. Have a look at how Melis Senova talks about using your subconscious and intuition in sensemaking. Jon Kolko also talks about the sense of magic in the synthesis process. As designers, we’re largely agreed that the value of synthesis is not in the sorting of data, but in something else that happens either as you’re doing the sorting, or afterwards.
More often than not the insights I end up with are completely unrelated to the categories my data is sorted into. This freaks out new designers particularly, who like to be able to trace back where something came from, as if that demonstrates its worth. Clients often like to see these linkages as well.
Yes, you need to be able to justify your insight, but not necessarily by following a linear trail from x people said this so y must be true. You get to the “So what? by prompting your brain to work in different ways. I’m reminded of Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats; sorting your data is the white hat for the facts, but you also need to bring in the red hat for intuition, the green hat for possibilities, and the yellow hat for optimism. It’s not a perfect metaphor but it’s a useful way to think about synthesis beyond just data.
Some ways to get the magic happening
The challenge with teaching people synthesis is that everyone’s brain works differently, so what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. My advice is to try out as many things as you can and see what prompts those magic “aha” moments for you.
Here’s some ways you might like to go about it:
- Write down your random ideas: Capture those fleeting thoughts as they happen and put them somewhere to come back to later. This often takes the form of questions for me. “Why do people love blue so much?” or “Imagery=Emotion but not for C21?” or “False hope?!!!” These are actual post it notes from a recent project. Many of them won’t go anywhere. Others prompt conversation and ideas. You won’t know which thought is useful until much later.
- Walk someone through it: Externalising my thinking is what works best for me. I talk through what I’m seeing with someone, and that helps me to understand it. If I could only do one thing it would be this, and I’d do it every day.
- Pull out the key anecdotes: There’s always particular stories from research that you find yourself telling again and again. Pull them out and examine them. Why are they resonating? How do others react when you tell them?
- Plot it on a journey: Yes, journey mapping. But in an exploratory way rather than for communication purposes. You could plot activity, or look at emotional state over time, or just compare the best to the worst journey.
- Opposing force analysis: Identify tensions where two things may be true at the same time. “People don’t want to be guided” and “People have a better experience if they’re guided.” They’re both true. Identify those moments and then ask yourself, so what?
- Connection analysis: Look for connections between themes. Sometimes they jump out at you, sometimes you need to force yourself to see them. Try putting two seemingly unrelated things together and see what happens. Do these things mean something different together than they do in isolation?
- Visualisation: Try drawing what you’re thinking. Sometimes our synthesis wall is full of little vignettes, calling out what we think is happening.
- Challenge: This is best done with someone else. Challenge each other about what you’re seeing or thinking or writing down. Is this really true? Is it representative? Why is it important?
It’s not an exact science, and it’s something you have to learn by doing, but you will get better at it every time you try. Happy synthing!
¹I don’t want to get hung up on terminology, but for the sake of this article I use the terms synthesis and sensemaking interchangeably, to talk about the thing that happens in the “define” stage of the double diamond. And yes I know that’s not how everyone thinks.