Synthesis as an analysis activity in design research

28 Mar 2009 - 7:51pm
5 years ago
5 replies
2082 reads
Steve Baty
2009

In a recent article of mine for Johnny Holland - Deconstructing Analysis
Techniques (
http://johnnyholland.org/magazine/2009/02/deconstructing-analysis-techniques/)
- I implicitly argued that synthesis is one of several techniques employed
during the analysis of design research data. The description of synthesis I
use follows:

> *Synthesis: The process of drawing together concepts, ideas, objects and
> other qualitative data in new configurations, or to create something
> entirely new.*
>
> Combining multiple elements together to create a new, complex ‘thing’ is
> what the technique of synthesis is all about. Similar in some respects to
> aggregation, synthesis typically deals with non-numeric data.
>
> Synthesis is often undertaken towards the end of an analytic process as the
> reverse of deconstruction. So where we might begin by breaking down data
> into its component parts and examining them; we often end by recombining
> those components in new ways. Note, however, that synthesis can also form
> part of an exploration and is one of the fundamental tools of the trade for
> UX strategy work.
>
> If deconstruction allows us to critically examine assumptions by isolating
> individual components, synthesis allows us to explore new configurations for
> the whole.
>
In the feedback received on the article one of the main points touched on
was the belief that synthesis actually represents a distinct and separate
activity *outside* of analysis.

In my own analysis work I struggle to separate synthesis into a completely
distinct activity. As I work with the data I actively bring together ideas
and concepts identified in user research, business research, competitive
analysis, industry trends, technology trends (and current states), and an
understanding of the current basis for competition. As these concepts come
together they form complex ideas which then are used to explore design ideas
- aimed at a solution to the problem at hand.

However, that's me. I'm curious of what other people think about this
distinction: is it meaningful in your own work? Is the characterisation of
synthesis provided above (in the quoted section) one that resonates for you?

Regards
Steve

--
Steve 'Doc' Baty | Principal | Meld Consulting | P: +61 417 061 292 | E:
stevebaty at meld.com.au | Twitter: docbaty | LinkedIn:
www.linkedin.com/in/stevebaty

Blog: http://meld.com.au/blog
Contributor: Johnny Holland - johnnyholland.org
Contributor: UXMatters - www.uxmatters.com
UX Australia: 25-27 August, http://uxaustralia.com.au
UX Book Club: http://uxbookclub.org/ - Read, discuss, connect.

Comments

28 Mar 2009 - 11:18pm
Dave Malouf
2005

In my contextual research methods class that I teach which was created
by Jon Kolko there is a deliberate "design opportunities" piece to
the research process.

In the other professor's teaching, she doesn't take it this next
step, but I not only encourage, but require that visualizing your
opportunities in some manner (synthesizing).

Further, I encourage (this I don't require) that during all phases
of design research that students sketching solutions inspired by what
they observe or otherwise listen to. The non-linear nature of design,
implores this type of tool b/c sketching is associative in nature
while at the same time being constructive and applying synthesis.

It is not meant to be an ends, but rather a reference point of the
moment. It works to help processing, create moments of interpretation
and reflection and create new data points for analysis. AND lead
towards post analysis synthesis.

So I concur.

-- dave

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Posted from the new ixda.org
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29 Mar 2009 - 12:39am
Brad Ty Nunnally
2008

During and after research phases, I always try keep a record of ideas that I
have which could one day be solutions. I capture these ideas in my trusty
moleskin, that hardly leaves my side. Some say that sketching out solutions
during the research and analysis stages could make you bias towards the
eventual end solution. However, it is part my practice to create the sketch
and then act like it doesn't exists. For me the ability to create and ignore
is a critical skill to have as a designer.

These early sketches are important because they capture any early ideas or
concepts you get while you learn about the user or domain. In a way, you are
using skills that Dan Roam talks about in 'The Back of the Napkin' by using
visuals communication skills to articulate your ideas.

I guess the important part of what I am trying to say is that it is ok to
generate early concepts that may one day be solutions to a given problem.
Just be responsible enough to ignore these concepts until such time that you
can review them holistically and see how they fit into the big picture of
things. By creating early concepts you are proactively synthesizing the data
you are collecting or reviewing. This way you don't lose any of the finer
details you might learn, that normally get filed away and you might lose
when you go back to review the data.

Peace!

Brad Ty Nunnally
----------------------------------------
Interaction Designer
Twitter: bnunnally
Blog: http://bnunnally.tumblr.com

On Sat, Mar 28, 2009 at 4:18 PM, Dave Malouf <dave.ixd at gmail.com> wrote:

> In my contextual research methods class that I teach which was created
> by Jon Kolko there is a deliberate "design opportunities" piece to
> the research process.
>
> In the other professor's teaching, she doesn't take it this next
> step, but I not only encourage, but require that visualizing your
> opportunities in some manner (synthesizing).
>
> Further, I encourage (this I don't require) that during all phases
> of design research that students sketching solutions inspired by what
> they observe or otherwise listen to. The non-linear nature of design,
> implores this type of tool b/c sketching is associative in nature
> while at the same time being constructive and applying synthesis.
>
> It is not meant to be an ends, but rather a reference point of the
> moment. It works to help processing, create moments of interpretation
> and reflection and create new data points for analysis. AND lead
> towards post analysis synthesis.
>
> So I concur.
>
> -- dave
>
>
>
> . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
> Posted from the new ixda.org
> http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=40670
>
>
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30 Mar 2009 - 9:31am
David B. Rondeau
2003

For me, the work is broken down a little differently. (I work at
InContext Design and so use the Contextual Design methodology created
by Holtzblatt and Beyer). Using this methodology, the process is
broken more into Research and Consolidation (or synthesis), with
analysis being part of Research.

The Research phase consists of gathering information: we talk to the
client and other stakeholders to understand the business needs and
technical constraints, and we do Contextual Inquiry interviews with
users. As part of this Research phase we have an interpretation
session after each interview%u2014this is our analysis. We recount
the interview and capture the details that are relevant to our focus.
This includes capturing notes to later build an affinity diagram, and
visually sketch out other relevant models (sequence, flow, physical,
etc.). We do this so everyone on the team can have a shared
understanding about what happened during the interview. For me, this
analysis is just part of the research%u2014but it is separate from
synthesis as Steve initially suggested.

After enough interviews are completed, we then consolidate each model
across all users. Using our process, we take each individual sketch
and combine them to create new consolidated sketches. This is where
the synthesis takes place and you begin to see the larger picture of
the work across all the users.

The sketching that we do in these phases is different than the
sketching that Brad Nunnally discussed, but similar to what Dave
Malouf raised. In these phases, we use sketches to understand the
data and to share and communicate that understanding to the team and
eventually to the client. (Yes, the sketching here is synthetic, but
that's not the main purpose.) We don't sketch solutions until
consolidation is done and we have a full picture of the work across
the user population.

Once into the design phase though, I agree wholeheartedly that
designers should be sketching their ideas. We have a saying, "If
nothing is being captured, then you are just talking in the air."
Without a shared representation, it's hard to build a shared
understanding and make a decision. Personally, I find it very
difficult to even think about design without sketching.

I suspect that our process may be different than most. If so, I'd be
curious to hear how other processes differ in terms of research,
analysis, and synthesis.

David Rondeau
Design Chair
Twitter: dbrondeau

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
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30 Mar 2009 - 2:44pm
Steve Baty
2009

David,

Thank you for the detailed view of your process. You raise one point that
I'd like to tease out: although you have a separate stage that is solely
focused on synthesis activities - Consolidation; your Research stage
includes other, smaller but no less significant, synthesis activities. Did I
understand that correctly?

Things like: "visually sketch out other relevant models (sequence, flow,
physical, etc.)"

One of the things I'd like to understand better is the way in which these
smaller tasks - right across design research - are intertwined. It's that
intermingling which makes them so difficult to identify, understand and
improve.

Thanks again
Steve

2009/3/30 David B.Rondeau <david.rondeau at incontextdesign.com>

> For me, the work is broken down a little differently. (I work at
> InContext Design and so use the Contextual Design methodology created
> by Holtzblatt and Beyer). Using this methodology, the process is
> broken more into Research and Consolidation (or synthesis), with
> analysis being part of Research.
>
> The Research phase consists of gathering information: we talk to the
> client and other stakeholders to understand the business needs and
> technical constraints, and we do Contextual Inquiry interviews with
> users. As part of this Research phase we have an interpretation
> session after each interview%u2014this is our analysis. We recount
> the interview and capture the details that are relevant to our focus.
> This includes capturing notes to later build an affinity diagram, and
> visually sketch out other relevant models (sequence, flow, physical,
> etc.). We do this so everyone on the team can have a shared
> understanding about what happened during the interview. For me, this
> analysis is just part of the research%u2014but it is separate from
> synthesis as Steve initially suggested.
>
> After enough interviews are completed, we then consolidate each model
> across all users. Using our process, we take each individual sketch
> and combine them to create new consolidated sketches. This is where
> the synthesis takes place and you begin to see the larger picture of
> the work across all the users.
>
> The sketching that we do in these phases is different than the
> sketching that Brad Nunnally discussed, but similar to what Dave
> Malouf raised. In these phases, we use sketches to understand the
> data and to share and communicate that understanding to the team and
> eventually to the client. (Yes, the sketching here is synthetic, but
> that's not the main purpose.) We don't sketch solutions until
> consolidation is done and we have a full picture of the work across
> the user population.
>
> Once into the design phase though, I agree wholeheartedly that
> designers should be sketching their ideas. We have a saying, "If
> nothing is being captured, then you are just talking in the air."
> Without a shared representation, it's hard to build a shared
> understanding and make a decision. Personally, I find it very
> difficult to even think about design without sketching.
>
> I suspect that our process may be different than most. If so, I'd be
> curious to hear how other processes differ in terms of research,
> analysis, and synthesis.
>
> David Rondeau
> Design Chair
> Twitter: dbrondeau
>

--
Steve 'Doc' Baty | Principal | Meld Consulting | P: +61 417 061 292 | E:
stevebaty at meld.com.au | Twitter: docbaty | LinkedIn:
www.linkedin.com/in/stevebaty

Blog: http://meld.com.au/blog
Contributor: Johnny Holland - johnnyholland.org
Contributor: UXMatters - www.uxmatters.com
UX Australia: 25-27 August, http://uxaustralia.com.au
UX Book Club: http://uxbookclub.org/ - Read, discuss, connect.

30 Mar 2009 - 10:55pm
David B. Rondeau
2003

Gretchen described it well%u2014"There's Synthesis and synthesis."
In the Research phase, during the interpretation sessions, we do in
fact visually sketch out other relevant models (sequence, flow,
physical, etc.), and I believe that the very act of sketching is
always synthetic. But you said "your Research stage includes other,
smaller but no less significant, synthesis activities", which isn't
exactly true in our case. I would argue that they are less significant
as synthesis activities than the activities we do during
consolidation. This is because the sketching that we do at this point
is primarily for communication and understanding, not synthesis.

I also liked Gretchen's point about story%u2014"You need to really
craft your findings to capture all the nuances that lead you to a
design direction." This storytelling can actually be done earlier in
the process to actually drive and define the design direction. In our
process we use a process that we call visioning%u2014basically a
brainstorming process that centers around group storytelling. We
"walk" all of the consolidated data to prime our brains, and then
with a group of people, we tell the story of "Based on what we now
know about the users, what could the new world look like?"

If you start your design direction with a story, it makes it very
easy to continue that story throughout the design phase and into your
deliverables.

David Rondeau
Design Chair
Twitter: dbrondeau

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=40670

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