The “magic trick” behind Design Thinking: Synthesis
The word describes the process of turning data, experiences, insights, interviews, and learnings into a holistic concept, framework, or picture structuring all that is known, to reach new conclusions, create fresh concepts, and derive novel ideas.
To my experience, synthesis tasks are also one of the greatest challenges that Design Thinking teams face. If the synthesis is conducted successfully, the results turn out to have exceptional leverage, still the work and methods that led to this outcome often remain invisible — similar to a good magic trick. This is something I want to change with this article, sharing the synthesis methods and techniques that were the most useful during my Design Thinking learning experience.
How to get to results and prototypes that create “Aha” experiences
The synthesis process has the goal to reach structured and partly abstracted representations of previous findings and results through an iterative process. Information from desk research, interviews, prototypes, and testings are cleverly combined to form the foundation for results and prototypes that create "Aha" experiences. Throughout this process it is important to actually make the sensemaking process tangible – often problems in the Design Thinking context are ill-defined or reach a complexity that requires more memory capacity than available in our human short-term memory. Therefore, a good synthesis often happens on whiteboards or their digital equivalents.
Overall, a synthesis process follows three simple steps. First (1), all the available knowledge and information is shared or “externalized” so all involved team members are on the same page. The second step (2) is shaped by the destinct methods that are applied. The goal is to create novel ideas or create new expertise. This can be done through simple mapping approaches or by designing and building own frameworks. The third and last step (3) is similar to protoype testings, as the new formed understanding needs to be discussed with the team or with actual users to ensure its quality and accuracy.
Externalizing all knowledge and information to make it tangible (PostIts, Miro-Bords, sketches, ...)
2. Creating Knowledge
Structuring the information alone or discussing it in small teams, to repurpose and connect the knowledge (clusters, connections, frameworks, groups, themes, ...)
Discussing the new developed understanding with the team (peer-review, different takes on the topic, mitigating bias, developing a common perspective, ...)
Often this process alone, when applied in an interative fashion already creates abstracted or generalized results. Moreover, after successful completion these results can often be easily explained to third parties without the need to state the cumbersom process of summarizing, structuring, and enriching.
My personal go-to synthesis methods:
Each of the described methods follow the three step synthesis process of: (1) documenting, (2) knowledge creation, and (3) discussing and aligning with the Design Thinking team.
This method is repurposing or adapting existing frameworks to the individual context of the Design Thinking challenge at hand. Typically classic frameworks (e.g. SWOT, 4Ps, Value Chains, Service Blueprints, Journey Maps) or matrixes (e.g. BCG Matrix, Qualitative&Quantitative, Internal&External, ...) are utilized to structure the available information. I often use this method at the beginning of projects to structure already known factors and to discover knowledge gaps in the problem space.
- Collect all information / documentation
- Filling existing framework:
a. Search through existing frameworks and adapt these if necessary
(for inspiration: The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking)
b. Filling in and prioritizing information in the chosen framework
c. Establishing (new) connections
3. Discuss and test the framework with the team/users
Building own frameworks
The goal of this method is to condense available information into own frameworks by clustering and introducing dimensions, groups, and connections. The method is especially useful to build a mutual understanding about all the available information within the Design Thinking team. In my opinion own frameworks are also an efficient way to communicate efficiently with more distant stakeholders, by this making up for the often time intensive drafting process.
- Externalizing all available information (PostIts, sketching, ...)
- Building own framework:
a. Prioritizing and thus limiting the information
(screening, grouping, evaluating, clustering, ...)
b. Connecting the remaining information
c. Redrawing and creating a new structure
- Finalizing and discussing the build framework with the team/users
While mind mapping is often used for ideation and creative sessions, mapping in the context of synthesis is all about putting existing information into (new) relationships. The method is often used during the creation of personas or while “dumping” the team’s knowledge.
- Collecting all information (PostIts are the go-to medium for flexibility)
- Structuring/clustering the information
- As a team discover/derive clusters and manipulate them iteratively
The reframing or reinterpreting previous structures and insights method has the goal to provide new perspectives on existing thought patterns. This is done by inverting, relaxing, or extrapolating assumptions. In my experience this synthesis method is especially useful to discover formerly unthought of project directions.
a. Describe existing structures
b. Standardize complexity
- Test or discuss new view with users and incorporate feedback
Especially visually thinking people can find new answers to existing questions by scribbling and sketching. This gift can also be used in the process of synthesis to find possible answers in the data.
- Summarizing each individual source into one sketch
- Clustering sketches according to themes (places, things, sequences, ...)
- Discussing and redesigning the new pictures with the team
Through storytelling a Design Thinking team can further build up its empathy with users. The information obtained through interviews is rediscovered and condensed into stories or storyboards creating a shared vision on needs and user characteristics.
- Choosing a viewpoint
a. Collecting all related information
b. Linking information to user journey
c. Creating story
- Discussing story to derive new insights
Blogs, articles, books, resources, and courses that inspired this article and my Design Thinking learning experience:
- SUGAR Network / Service Design Thinking at KIT (most insights originate from two 9-month industry projects I worked on— first as a student, the second one as a teaching assistant
- IDEO DesignKit (overview on methods and human-centered design case examples)
- IBM Design Thinking Toolkit / IBM Enterprise Design Thinking (methods and a glimpse into how human-centered design can (re-)shape an international company)
- Gov.uk: User Research (not only business can profit from human-centered design, the UK government showcases methods for a “citizen-centered” public service approach)
- Public Design Vault: Synthesis (many useful links to different methods/articles about synthesis)
- Books: Design Thinking Das Handbuch (German), The Design Thinking Playbook (English), Digital Innovation Playbook Templates (basic copy-paste templates)
- Other publications: Takeda et al. 1999: Synthesis Thought Processes in Design https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-1901-8_22; Kolko, J., 2010: Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking: The Drivers of Design Synthesis https://doi.org/10.1162/desi.2010.26.1.15; Ho, C.-H., 2001: Some phenomena of problem decomposition strategy for design thinking: differences between novices and experts https://doi.org/10.1016/S0142-694X(99)00030-7