Synthesis Synthesized

Munich IDEO IxDA meeting Post-its Patterns Preservation 3

Despite silly season we had a great time during my workshop on design research synthesis at the IxDA Munich meeting.

We worked in three mixed groups and we tried to visualize the synthesis process, including input/output, activities, methods and tools used, stakeholders involved, ways of “storing” findings/insights for later re-use and personal positive/negative experience during synthesis.


Here are a couple of topics that came up during the discussion:

  • Is synthesis a process? Can it be formalized?

    Some participants mentioned that synthesis is a subjective and subconscious act that cannot be externalized or formalized. Nevertheless they suggested that synthesis can be facilitated by providing an optimal (work/analysis/synthesis)-environment e.g. stress free schedules, lots of room to interact with data and colleagues etc.
  • How to collect the right amount of data?

    To be able to do “good synthesis” it was indicated that the initial process of data collection has to be planned carefully. Having a clear understanding of what to collect and which questions to answer helps to avoid the phenomenon of “death by data“ during synthesis. The synthesis process is perceived to be easier with less visual noise. One proposed solution was labeling data-chunks during deconstruction with a distinct icon to have a comprehensive view of all collected data, without having to read the textual information.
  • How many people are involved during synthesis?

    While in some organizations synthesis as a process is done by one person only, there were also examples of synthesis as a collaborative activity. Often the project-scope, the available time and budget seem to influence how many people can get involved. All participants agreed that an inclusion of other researchers/designers or related-stakeholders during synthesis might be beneficial (embracing different points of view, building upon insights of others etc.)
  • Should we integrate clients during synthesis?

    There was the suggestion that an integration of clients during research and synthesis helps to build empathy and commitment. Integration (even when it is done only partially) makes synthesis transparent to decision makers and enables them to “get“ insights (both in the sense of understanding the findings and having insights for themselves, in contrast to “being lectured” by the researcher.
  • What are good deliverables of the synthesis process?

    The question what good deliverables look like strongly related to the discussion of when to go digital during synthesis. There was a discussion of “excel spreadsheets“ vs “post-it wall pictures“ or rephrased: when is it better rather to inspire than to inform with the output of the synthesis process? How can we adequately communicate meaning (of our insights/findings)? And is it necessary to educate our clients to realize what deliverables they really need?


Due to the time-restriction of our meeting, we could not dig any deeper. All in all, there seems to be a strong interest in the topic of design research synthesis among practitioners from various backgrounds. We agreed to bring up the topic in one of our future meetings and we may also consider collecting best practices, and design synthesis theory in a Wiki or a more formal form of publication. We were not sure though, whether it is possible to mold such an abstract activity as synthesis into a paper-based representation. Only time will tell.

If you are interested in collaboration on analysis/synthesis, feel free to drop me a line.

Cheers to all participants for making this event so enjoyable. A big thanks to the IxDA Munich organizers for enabling all this and ¡muchas gracias! to IDEO for making the office space available (once again).

Slides from my workshop:

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  1. [...] A short wrap-up of this session can be found here: http://www.stephanengl.com/2010/07/synthesis-synthesized/ Stephan aso uploaded the slides here: [...]