‘Synthesising insights into opportunities’ is the process of making sense of discovery work and framing opportunities. In a co-design process, it comes after ’developing insights with people’. Once we have analysed and synthesised the information we gathered during discovery so that we know what we have learned, we then look to identify the opportunity areas. Opportunity areas are where we believe we can affect change. The move from insights to opportunities is a creative leap that is grounded in rich insight and understanding of the perspectives and data that have been shared. In this content you will find a step-by-step overview of the process and tips to support the journey.
The ideas and stories captured here were shared by members of the Regional Innovator’s Network (RIN) during a peer learning session on 7 August 2018.
What it means: Making sense of discovery and seeing opportunities for change (in four steps)
- Step 1: Information pouring
- Step 2: Pattern spotting
- Step 3: Synthesising insights
- Step 4: Framing opportunity areas
- Understanding analysis and synthesis
- Zooming in and zooming out
- Complementing qualitative with quantitative
- Working with others – not going it alone
- Having a “space” for synthesis
- Framing information with the next steps in mind
- Moving too fast
- Unclear or unspecific insights
- Getting lost…Jumping to problem solving
- Framing all insights as problems and presenting people as victims
What it means: Making sense of discovery and seeing opportunities for change (in four steps)
The analysis and synthesis process is one of the hallmark parts of the design process — and it is a process that requires a creative leap. It may seem mysterious at first, so often the explanation makes more sense once you’ve been through the process.
In addition to discussing the four steps for synthesising insights into opportunities, we have included some notes about what comes before and after in order to put this phase into context.
Leading up to synthesis: doing discovery
Synthesis and opportunity identification are typically done after discovery. In the diagram below, “synthesising insights into opportunities” is a phase that comes after “developing insights with people” (aka discovery). It is worth noting however that it can be helpful to move back and forth between discovery and synthesis until you feel you have enough information to move forward.
From our discovery process, we may have quotes, transcripts, generative tools that have been completed, and more. We then combine what we learn from people with other sources of information, including data, reports from other projects, information from an existing evidence base, etc.
Step 1: Information pouring
Once it’s time to begin making sense of the information we’ve gathered, in taking a design-based approach we like to use a method called “information pouring”. As the name sounds, it is a process of laying out the information you have gathered as it pertains to your key research questions. Information pouring sets the stage for analysis.
Here are the steps for information pouring:
- Create a space to work – grab a stack of paper and a table or a wall, flip charts and sticky notes if you have them
- Label each blank page with a different key question – typically you will have a handful of key research questions that were driving your discovery process
- One at a time, go through each piece of information – interview, desktop research, literature, data sources, etc.
- Identify the key points from each piece of information and write each point down – if you’re using post-it notes, write one point per post-it. Decide if you need to be quick or thorough based on what’s appropriate for your project
- Capture quotes that stand out – capture the quote as close to the original statement as possible, and note the quote source (typically we use a pseudonym, code or cohort reference to track sources)
Information pouring is important because our memories are faulty! Information pouring helps us to get our arms around all the key points that are made. It also helps us ensure that we have honored what was said and that we have not left out any major points.
Step 2: Pattern spotting
Once you’ve poured all the information, you’ll begin to see patterns. Pattern spotting enables you to identify what you’ve learned during discovery. Pattern spotting is the essence of analysis.
With all of the information “poured out”, here are the steps for pattern spotting:
- Begin to cluster the information and label the clusters with themes
- Go through a few iterations of clustering and theming. It typically takes a few rounds to settle on a way to organise the information that captures the key points under clearly differentiated topics.
- Label the themes clearly, highlight most significant quotes, and ensure the sources are obvious
- Look for additional patterns in the theming. Did one cohort provide most of the insights for a certain theme? Do specific opportunities keep popping up? Are there any gaps in what was shared? What do you see?
Video: Case study from Dubbo
Step 3: Synthesising insights
Once you have identified the patterns in your information, synthesise the key points from what you have learned (the insights). It can also help to create a narrative around your insights so that they tell the story of what you learned.
The steps for synthesising insights are as follows:
- Get really clear on what you have learned. Start by writing and organising the key points that stood out – draft a more specific articulation of what you’ve learned. Tools like personas can be useful.
- Compile and compare the evidence – bring together the facts, data points, quantitative information, etc. and relate these to the learning.
- Describe the significance of that learning – reflect on what you have learned, and call out the implications of what you have learned for your project
- Tell the story – Have a go at telling the story of what you’ve learned, how you validate those learnings, and what it means. Create a narrative that explains what you have learned, even if it’s just something that you speak to or a quick summary.
Video: Case study from Lake Cargelligo
Step 4: Framing opportunity areas
Looking at the patterns in what you have learned in order to see opportunities where change is possible is where the creative leap occurs. There are a number of techniques that can help you identify opportunity areas. The right approach to carving out opportunities will depend on your project. Here are a few examples:
- Translating themes directly into opportunities: Sometimes identifying opportunities can be as straightforward as re-stating your key points or themes, framing them as a “How might we…?” question.
- Generating many “How might we…?” framing questions: Not all opportunities align one-to-one with a theme and sometimes it takes some creativity to explore the ways that change can be created. You may also want to generate as many opportunity areas as possible. It can be helpful to do a few rounds of writing and refining “How might we questions” in order to identify the many different opportunities that the insights point to. <link to HMW worksheet> In the worksheet provided (also in the links below), try out a few of the provocations to help with the brainstorming process. Here are a handful of starting prompts as examples:
- How might we…take the insight to an extreme?
- How might we…explore the opposite of the theme?
- How might we…question an assumption?
- How might we…focus in on an element?
- Naming stakeholders and levers across the system: List the different aspects of the system that can be changed, and who can change them. Think at the many different levels of the system, for instance front-line, community, state and federal. Across these layers, who can change what aspect of the system?
- Drawing your circles of control and influence: In three concentric circles moving from the inside to the outside, list all the aspects of the situation that are within your control (in the center), within your influence (middle circle) and outside your influence (outside circle). Choose the right span for your project – your own, your team, your community, etc. Identify things that could be changed (whether through control or influence) that would impact the themes you have seen. This can be used together with the stakeholder approach above.
- Taking a ‘frame innovation’ approach: Using a method pioneered by Kees Dorst and the Designing out Crime team at UTS, delve more deeply into the themes you have identified in order to see the nature of the challenge differently. Frame opportunities around this new perspective as to what is creating a paradox that is difficult to solve. Look for ways to satisfy potentially conflicting agendas with a positive approach and creative ideas that tap into shared values. Read here for more information about the ‘frame innovation’ approach
After synthesising insights into opportunities: sharing what you’ve learned for testing and input
Once you have analysed the information, synthesised what you have learned and then identified the opportunities, the next step is often testing what you have learned before moving any further.
By bringing people into the process at this point, you can test how you’re framing what you have learned, add to what you’ve learned with other perspectives and build buy-in. This is a chance to round out your learnings, get clear on what stakeholders see as the opportunity areas, and start shaping ideas and solutions together. It is beneficial to get stakeholders involved before you have developed solutions because people tend to be more likely to get behind a solution that they have helped inform.
Understanding analysis and synthesis
There is a difference between analysis and synthesis. Analysing is clustering information, spotting patterns and seeing what the data is telling you. Synthesis is the process of framing the key points that you want to communicate from the analysis. Synthesis involves building your storytelling to be able to communicate key points in a compelling manner, often using visuals to help illustrate.
Zooming in and zooming out
When you start the information pouring process, you will probably go through a series of conversations about the right level of detail needed. Based on your scope and your stakeholder needs, you may need to be very detailed, you may need to stay at the high level, or you may need to fit somewhere in between. You will zoom in and zoom out. You will zoom into the detail, but you will also zoom back out to your objectives and the overall context. Having this conversation at the beginning of information pouring will help create focus and keep you working toward your objectives.
Complementing qualitative with quantitative
Consider ways you could complement any qualitative data with quantitative data. What data is already available? You may be able to consult census data, employment data, migration data, etc.
Consider what quantitative data you could gather during your interview process. As an example, sometimes including a rating scale together with qualitative answers can help put people’s responses into context and better enable comparison with other responses.
Bringing together the qualitative and quantitative can create a robust picture of the situation.
There is also opportunity to use the different forms of research in sequence, for instance:
- Use quantitative data to understand the magnitude of an issue, e.g. youth incarceration
- Do qualitative-based interviews to understand what young people, parents, police and justice staff feel are the key issues, barriers and opportunities. Develop insights, opportunities and ideas
- Use a survey on a larger scale to validate the insights, opportunities and ideas. With this data, make decisions about where to focus
Working with others – not going it alone
The co-design process is hard to do alone. Sometimes you don’t have an option, but if you do – work in pairs or with a team! Even if you’ve had to do the research alone, try to find someone to help you think through the insights. An approach that we often use is to have the person who conducted the research to talk through what they learned while the other person documents the key quotes and points, e.g. on post it notes.
Having a space for synthesis
When you speak with people, you learn a lot. To do justice to what they have shared with you, it helps to reflect on those conversations in depth – and having space to do that is very useful. If you can access a physical space, such as a workshop room or large community room, this can allow you to lay out all the information so you can actually see it all and take it all in. It helps make large amounts of information more manageable. This physical and visual process also helps our memories.
If you don’t have space available, try working with mind maps on a series of A3 papers, or on documents that you share online, e.g. like Google docs. Space isn’t an absolute requirement, but it can help.
Framing information with the next steps in mind
If you are working with a lot of data (even 10 interviews can create a lot of data), there are a few tips that will help you keep track of what you’re learning as you go along:
> 1. Holding on to the voice of people – using direct quotes
It can be easy to lose the voice of the people you have spoken to, and yet this is often one of the most powerful assets you have in communicating what you have learned. It is particularly important to be able to communicate the voice of the people you spoke to when you share your insights and opportunities with other stakeholders. But in the countless post-it notes it can be easy to shift into shorthand. For instance, “I don’t feel welcome or even safe when I walk into that building with all those people staring at me” can too easily be rolled up to something like “lack of cultural safety” — and then lose meaning. For this reason, we try to keep our insights and opportunities supported by actual quotes.
> 2. Fastidiousness…in your data capture and labelling during discovery
In order to hold on to the voice of participants, a little fastidiousness in your data capture and labelling can really help. When you do record what you learn from people, be sure to capture demographics and information relevant to the research, e.g. gender identification, age, length of time in jobs, location, etc. As you start to write up quotes and key points, it can help to colour-code by cohort, e.g. teachers, young people, police, etc. You may need to assign identification codes or pseudonyms to participants, and label quotes accordingly, e.g. teacher 1, teacher 2, etc.
> 3. A sharing format that meets the stakeholder need: in-progress vs polished
As you begin the process of synthesising insights into opportunities, think ahead to how you will share the information as it may help structure your approach. There are times when a polished version of insights and opportunities is important. If we are trying to bring people along the journey and build engagement, we can help people feel more comfortable in engaging and providing feedback by showing less polished materials. These less formal materials give the sense that we’re in the middle of the process and that people’s input will be used to shape what happens next. At TACSI we often use a ‘walk through’ to share back what we’ve learned and gather feedback.
Moving too fast
When it comes to qualitative research and the co-design process, the richness is in the detail. In your scheduling as well as when you’re doing analysis and synthesis, allow time to sit with what you’re learning.
Unclear or unspecific insights
Take the time to differentiate between a fact, an observation, a needs statement and a theme (insight). What is different about an insight is that it is specific and it points to action that may help shift the situation and/or the outcome. This is one of the most nuanced aspects of synthesis and can take some experience to learn.
Getting lost…Jumping to problem solving
It’s easy to get lost in the detail during synthesis. It’s also easy to jump into problem solving. Often we’re far more comfortable with problem solving than we are in sitting with uncertainty and complexity and comparing perspectives — especially when there is a person with a serious challenge in front of you.
Here are a few tips when you have the itch to jump ahead because all you can see is the detail, or when the detail doesn’t make any sense yet:
- Take it one bite at a time and compare perspectives as you go: Start with one cohort and synthesise what you have learned. Then move to the next cohort, synthesise what you learn and compare perspectives. Keep adding perspectives over time, reframing what you learn.
- Use generative tools consistently (e.g. the individual’s stakeholder map) – keep using the same tools and capture methods to anchor what you’re learning. This allows you to compare what you are learning across people’s perspectives
- Get it down on paper – when you’re swimming in data, take the time to get it all out of your head. Capture the key points that you remember, review the notes from each person to round out the full picture. Consider using mind mapping to link all of your thoughts.
- Zoom in and zoom out: Does what you’re learning lead you to reframe your high level questions and focus? Is your approach leading you to learn what you need to learn?
- Go back to the process and get oriented: What stage are you in? What types of activities does the stage involve? What are the key outputs of the stage?
- Check your scope: Is what you’re learning still in scope?
Framing all insights as problems & presenting people as victims (use positive framing instead)
We often start a project because there is an issue that has been identified. But when we share back with others, if they only hear issues and problems they are likely to disengage — or even be offended. We can also inadvertently position people as victims when our goal is actually to empower them.
There are a few key techniques to help you take a positive frame:
- Review the key research questions – are you looking for what works, what helps, opportunities and success stories as well as what hinders, challenges and barriers?
- Capture the positive – when you write up your notes, post-its, insights, themes and opportunities, make sure to share success stories, what people think works, and what people feel good about, etc.
- Check the language – scan the language you use at every step – is it unnecessarily offensive to a key stakeholder group? Does it position the person as a victim, or someone who is powerless? Is it overly negative or deficit-based? How might you use language that is balanced, fair, strengths-based and optimistic?