Another interesting article from IDEO- “Making Sense of It All”

After returning from India, where is partnering with World Health Partners to find ways to integrate data capture into rural healthcare, Fellow, Minnie Bredouw, shares some helpful tips about how to turn insights into opportunity.

It’s no secret that human-centered design is integrating into a variety of industries outside of just creative consulting. Organizations are starting to look at human behavior for inspiration instead of relying solely on surveys and market statistics. In addition, creative ways of problem solving such as brainstorming and rapid prototyping are being woven into the fabric of many industries beyond just design.

Yet, there is one step of the process that remains somewhat nebulous for even a seasoned designer: synthesis. What is the best way to turn seemingly disconnected observations during research into concise design opportunities that can be made tangible and tested?

At, most of our projects are on a compressed timeline spanning less than 12 weeks. This means that synthesis of our research can have a heightened sense of urgency. My current project with World Health Partners (WHP) in India is focused on helping rural healthcare providers integrate data capture into their practice. After two weeks in field research in rural north India, we returned with notes from over 20 user interviews, 2,000+ photos, and hundreds of post its, artifacts, and scribbled observations from our time there.

On a project with so many variables, what’s the best way for a team of three to make sense of it all over the course of only a week? We asked ourselves, where should we focus and what are the next steps? How can we turn our observations into something useful? While there is no perfect formula for synthesis, here are a few tips that our design team used to focus our process as we attempted to make meaning of everything we experienced.

1. Design as you go

After weeks of research, standing in a room surrounded by post-its, quotes, photos, and stories can be daunting to make sense of, if not down right parallelizing. It can be hard to know where to start and how to process everything the team has experienced. As such, we found it helpful to start designing while we gathered information, as well as after. I enjoy doing a mini-brainstorm after interviews with research participants, trying to design the perfect solution(s) for that person or group. This was a good way to process what we had just heard in a visual way and remember some of the most salient points. Whether it be sketching a quick feature or doing an early system map, don’t be afraid to let research inspire you, even if you don’t have the whole picture yet. (See photo 1)

Design as you go - WHP team brainstorming ideas after an interview with a healthcare provider.
Design as you go – WHP team brainstorming ideas after an interview with a healthcare provider.

2. Show don’t tell 

We all know the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and during synthesis, having photos and visual cues can enable you to gain a new perspective on your experiences. Though taking notes or voice recordings is important, there have been a number of times where photographs have helped us see things that we may not have picked up on while running our interviews. Often, an understanding of the context around the participant was just as important as the words they said and photographs helped answer questions not explicitly stated by our interviewees. An additional benefit of doing this is that someone not familiar with the project can instantly get a better sense of what you’ve experienced though the visual impact photographs can have, as opposed to reading dozens of post-its. (See photo 2)

3. Take it outside

While it’s a good idea to record and share all of your observations and research findings, it can be easy to get bogged down in details if you don’t lift your head up once and awhile. As it is nearly impossible to address every need of every user interviewed, one way we helped create clarity was by asking ourselves, “What stands out? Why? What behavior patterns are we seeing? What are the quotes or stories that we feel passionately about?” Sometimes our project team found that leaving the project space and just having an informal conversation was a good way to step back from all the overwhelming details. At some point, it’s important to return to those details to tell a comprehensive story, but thinking about what was experienced in an informal context, such as over coffee or on a walk, can help you break away from those constraints. (See photo 3)

4. Insights versus opportunities

As you begin to make sense of things, it can be easy to confuse insights and opportunities. A general rule of thumb for human-centered design is that insights help you identify opportunities. An insight comes from multiple observations on a similar theme, and should be agnostic of a solution. For example, an insight that our WHP design team discovered was “There is redundancy and little consistency around where rural healthcare providers track data.” An opportunity can arise from one or multiple insights and usually provokes a solution. An opportunity we identified from the previous insight was “How might we centralize and streamline where providers record their data?” While making sense of research, it can be easy to jump strait to opportunities – it’s hard not to when you’re so inspired! To avoid this, try to ensure that each opportunity can be clearly traced back to an insight or supporting example. (See photo 4)

Insights vs. Opportunities - Insights on the left and opportunities on the right are about similar themes but serve different purposes.
Insights vs. Opportunities – Insights on the left and opportunities on the right are about similar themes but serve different purposes.

5. You are biased and it’s ok

While it’s important to be objective while making sense of research findings, even the most objective researcher is a sum of his or her own experiences. Human centered design is different than some creative processes in that it focuses on end user’s needs rather than the designer’s creative whims. However, during synthesis, the WHP team – John Won, Ravi Prakash, and I – actually gave ourselves space to get our own personal desires and biases out of our system. We actually found it helpful to acknowledge what personally inspired or excited us, so we didn’t confuse our own opinion with what we thought to be objective. By recognizing our biases, it helped us develop an awareness, and the beauty of working with an interdisciplinary team is each person’s lens will help complete the bigger picture. (See photo 5)

You are biased and it's ok - Ravi Prakash explains why he is personally inspired by one of our prototypes.
You are biased and it’s ok – Ravi Prakash explains why he is personally inspired by one of our prototypes.
How does synthesis fit into the design process?
How does synthesis fit into the design process?
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