By the third week of teaching the Understanding People module at Hyper Island in Manchester things got serious; we went through the process of synthesis and sense making. We did it in just one day.
Moving from the foggy start of the day surrounded by post-it notes to a coherent end point was tough but very satisfying. I was joined by two fellow IDEO Design Researchers – Jenny Winfield and Kate Wakely. They brought great experience and knowledge to the day and helped each team to shape their research into a clear set of insights, themes and opportunity areas.
This was probably the hardest and most enlightening day for the group. The feedback at the end of the day was very positive and it’s testament to the abilities of each and every member of the Digital User Experience cohort as it was a new process for them all.
Synthesis is a simple concept but a difficult process; you learn it by doing it. I learnt what I know from working alongside more experienced colleagues and observing the way they approached the challenge. The IDEO designers worked alongside each group throughout the day. This certainly wasn’t about giving some tips and letting them try it alone.
As with previous posts from my work with the group, I’ve picked out a few points that generated discussion
Synth setup basics
Five rules for a successful synthesis session – preparation is everything.
1. Close laptops, phones on silent. Get rid of anything that will distract you. You need to get lost a little, and your email beeping will break this up. Print out your photos, and your notes should be handwritten (as you wont have used a laptop to make note in the first place).
2. Everything in one space. Before you begin make sure you have enough post-it notes, wall space, pens, paper and anything else you’ll use to capture a structure your ideas. You should also have all of your downloaded research activities in the room with you. If you haven’t downloaded everything, do that first.
3. Snacks and sugar. It can help to have a few snacks in the space with you. It’s a draining process and so you might find you need the sugar/coffee/tea close to hand to get through it. Going to get a drink will be the first thing that breaks up your flow; once it’s broken it’ll take at least 15 minutes to get back up to speed. If anyone needs to go to the toilet, go now. And wash your hands.
4. One conversation at a time. This is one of IDEOs Rules of Brainstorming, it’s vital for several reasons: making sure only person talks at a time means that everyone hears what is said. It means that the group’s focus in magnified in one place and not dissipated around the room in multiple conversations. It’s also polite to listen to everyone, it signals that everyone in the room is of equal importance – and if they are in the room, they are.
5. Explain every Post-it note – tell stories. When you take it in turns to share an observation or quote make sure to explain it fully. If you don’t understand a post-it note ask the owner to clarify it. Everything that comes out of the session is owned by everyone involved. It’s your responsibility to understand everything.
During this week’s synthesis session I reflected on the physical nature of post-it noting in a room surrounded by other post-its. It struck me that the process is no accident. As a group, when we structure our shared intelligence as many small fragments stored spatially we essentially create an external map of our collective brain.
When you move, or introduce a new post, it’s vital to explain it; everyone needs to understand and agree with it. Don’t just read it out, tell the story that inspired it.
Once it’s placed you aren’t allow to move it without everyone seeing where it moved to and from.
In doing this you build the shared brain of the group. Sticking the post-its onto walls means that you make use of people’s spacial memory skills. Humans are wired to remember things spatially, think about how easy it is remember the route between your home and work. It’s an amazingly complex sequence of stages, but you make it without thinking. Laying out the thinking from a group synthesis session spatially means we can literally free space in our brains and store ideas in a way that’s easy to find later.
Maybe this is obvious to everyone else.
One of the most disconcerting things that the group experienced is sometimes known as ‘The Fog’. It’s the murky place you might find yourself in as you complete your research phase. You bring together your notes and start to wonder if any of it makes any sense.
It’s marks the point of maximum divergence. The notion of divergence is sometimes expressed as a Double Diamond or a graph line. They both point to the process of exploring and looking outward, at first it’s fun – but after a while it gets a little uncomfortable.
This is the fog.
You can’t avoid the fog, and nor should you. It’s a natural part of the creative process, the best thing is to recognise it. You might even come to love and embrace the fog. But only if you have a clear path forward.
The next step will be to synthesise your ideas, it begins with downloading – you can read more about that here:
Design Research–From Interview to Insight: Part One, Summarising the Interview
Next week, final presentations.