Data has little inherent value unless placed in a larger context. Categories, structure, and relationships all help turn pieces of data into information.
Design research can yield a massive amount of data, much of which seems random, counter-intuitive, or contradictory. To collate, sort, and make sense of data—and the patterns and connections within—we use a process called synthesis, which occurs across several stages of a project.
Field-based synthesis allows the team to refine and re-frame research questions and begin surfacing potential hypotheses to be tested and validated through ongoing fieldwork. Researchers should not be asking the same questions on Day 3 of a project as they are in Week 3. Weekly synthesis sessions organize early findings into frameworks for analysis. At the end of fieldwork, the process is used to identify opportunities for intervention.
Operational challenges in FATA necessitated a modified synthesis process.
Instead of in-person, nightly, group synthesis, sessions were held over the phone (with each researcher and the Islamabad-based project leads) every 1 to 3 nights, depending on mobile connectivity. These conversations, ranging from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours in length, saw researchers relaying highlights from their recent research through narrative and working with the project leads through analytical exercises.
On the other end of the line, the project leads drew connections between the different research reports being received daily. At the end of each session, researchers were directed to focus the next days’ research on more targeted questions and topics, drawn from the themes emerging across research teams.
Weekly synthesis sessions, conducted twice, convened researchers in Peshawar and allowed them to develop a common understanding of each other’s observations, providing the team with a shared foundation of insights to enable program design. Group synthesis also allowed the team to check and balance individual observations, as group conversations would highlight individual biases and help discipline the team’s understanding of reality its findings.
Collaboratively capturing and sorting data is critical to synthesis. The Data Wall is a tool for doing so. Each synthesis session contributes to a Data Wall as a visual map of findings—often on a physical wall. The Data Wall represents a shared process to capture all research findings, make visual connections between ideas, and start generating possible designs.
Once a Data Wall has been populated by Observations, Insights, and Patterns, the team begins a creative process to find connections or patterns between each disparate idea. Related ideas are clustered together, whether the relationships are obvious or subtle. Team members take turns moving Post-Its and presenting the different connections and themes they see between them.
Throughout the synthesis process, the team is engaged in a parallel and complementary exercise to identify the holes in collected data, and to collect the additional pieces of information needed to round out its analyses. Here we categorized the data that is still needed into two categories: Open Questions and Action Items.
The synthesis process yields many Observations, Patterns, and Ideas. At regular intervals—and at least once a week during fieldwork—the team works to organize them into conceptual frameworks to better understand the relationships between disparate data points, and to surface opportunities for intervention.