It’s hard to take action on your research without synthesizing your research insights into higher-level themes.
Synthesis is sitting down after research to ask the question:
“What do we now know to be true?”
Without synthesizing your insights into higher-level themes, it’s hard to take action on your research.
When you think of synthesis, scenes of messy whiteboards and sticky notes may come to mind. This doesn’t have to be a disorganized week-long war room. I’ve synthesized 10-minute usability tests to months-long market research and learned a lot along the way.
Here are some ways I’ve found to cut down on the time it takes to synthesize without limiting my research outcomes.
Cluttered whiteboards and sticky notes are proven ways to process your research, but not the most efficient ways. Instead, consider how you can synthesize your research as you go.
Let’s say you have a research effort lasting about two weeks. If you wait until the third week to synthesize everything you learn, you’re going to be juggling a lot of data. You’ll also find yourself trying to recall what you heard weeks earlier.
What if you broke that synthesis up into several sessions? You could set up shorter synthesis sessions once a week, twice per week, or even every day (for no more than 30 minutes). Take some time to jot down early takeaways or a quick summary of what stuck with you from that research session.
There are several benefits to breaking up synthesis this way:
You’re less likely to forget insights from earlier sessions.
You can adjust your research approach based on what you’re learning along the way (instead of realizing at the end of the project that you could have changed your approach and learned so much more).
Your final synthesis session is as easy as organizing the highlights from along the way.
It’s easier to find and highlight important insights when the research is fresh in your mind.
One way to help yourself synthesize along the way is to be very clear upfront about what you’re setting out to learn.
Do the work upfront
It will be hard to synthesize along the way if you’re unsure what you’re looking for. Set goals, establish a hypothesis, and narrow your research scope. This will help you keep an ear out for compelling insights throughout your research sessions. These activities are best done before you engage with your participants.
What are you hoping to get out of each session? Knowing the answer to this question makes it easy to mark up your research notes. Decide before you begin what your system will be for cataloging insights.
I usually have a shared document with others participating in the research session. I try to avoid transcribing the entire call unless future transcription is unavailable. When I hear something I know I’ll want to bring back to the team, I’ll jot down a quick note and outline why I took the note. Something like: “Feature request: more team options” or “Bug: can’t complete this workflow” or “JTBD: report progress for a team.” This also makes it easy for me to summarize at the end of the session.
Creating a template for notes and insights is another way to lighten the burden of synthesis. Create a few different categories for the themes you’re looking for, then fill in the blanks as you go. This will help you analyze each session, present your findings, and synthesize your findings into new knowledge.
Whatever your approach, make sure anyone else involved in the research with you is aware of your system. Each co-researcher should understand how to participate in and consume the research.
Find a synthesis buddy
Finding teammates may not be your first thought for research synthesis. Though you may be the leader or owner of the research effort, other people can and do play an important role.
I actually think of synthesis less as a team activity and more as a “buddy system.” Having someone else to bounce ideas off helps you:
Vocalize and articulate your ideas (an important synthesis activity—putting abstract thought into words).
Have multiple perspectives from different departments, backgrounds, and skillsets.
Avoid imposing your own bias on the research outcomes
As I mentioned, one of my favorite rapid synthesis techniques is the quick 5-minute session after a call. I’ve almost always done this with a Product Manager—or an engineer if they’re able to join the session.
Remember that this isn’t synthesis by committee. Just because someone says it doesn’t mean it’s true (that goes for you and your synthesis buddies). You are still responsible for the effectiveness of this research. You may need to herd the group and keep things focused.
Know when to use workshops
Workshops can be most useful when you need to synthesize a large mass of research. While we generally try to avoid meetings unless necessary, Jordan is a fan of workshops when done correctly. They can be a very efficient use of time and help plow through lots of data as a group.
We have a list of recommended workshops activities if you’re looking for ideas, but your workshops don’t need to be complicated. You could create something as simple as an affinity diagram.
Workshops can be helpful when working with people who aren’t well-versed in the art of synthesis. This can be an abstract process for newcomers, so workshops give them tangible activities to guide them through it.
Use tools to be more efficient
Hopefully, this goes without saying: never manually transcribe your recorded research sessions unless you have to. Paid tiers of Zoom will do it automatically. Rev.com charges by the minute for transcription. Descript has 3 free hours of automatic transcription per month.
Instead of transcribing, spend your time analyzing and summarizing your sessions. Tools like Dovetail and UserZoom Go help you automatically tag and markup each session. Once tagged, you can analyze trends across a breadth of research. If you’re low on budget, Notion or Airtable can provide organization systems with similar benefits (for a little more work).
Invest in a tool and standardize. Train up your team to catalog and markup research in the same way and the tool can begin to synthesize for you. Patterns and insights will begin to appear as tags and themes link to each other across sessions. Once you reach this level of research organization, you can tie off loose ends and do what’s more important: take action on what you’ve learned.