Please, please help synthesis from hurting so much

Adriana Valdez Young
5 min readSep 27, 2022

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Why is synthesis so hard? I’ve heard from many students, clients and, friends that synthesis can be a real slug. Your physical walls or Miro boards are overloaded with post-its of inspiring quotes, expert takes, team ideas, and too many persona ideas and keys to win. It’s time to share your findings beyond your team and make a compelling argument for why your research justifies a next phase or how to inform the evolution of a design — but you feel overwhelmed and stuck with how to surface what’s most critical and weave it into a seamless story. Here are a few tactics and tools you can try out to move away from a state of conundrum and closer to clarity.

1/Make a diagram
Lots of times designers come to my office hours with questions on how to visualize the prioritization of different design qualities. I suggest using a 2x2 matrix to create a system for categorizing the qualities along a spectrum. You can plot different versions (or product ideas) along the axes and get a great snapshot of your landscape (both internal and peer products). Stanford’s d.school has an abundance of free design research and design thinking resources and they explain how to make 2x2’s here.

You can also make 1x1s. Here’s an example of mapping teen need states along one spectrum, from critical to comforting. (This is from a project I worked on for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver several years ago to enhance their teen programs.)

Synthesis of the teen needs in art programs, prepared by the design team at Openbox for the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (2014).

2/Make it a family
If you’re working with personas or archetypes, instead of treating them as each a distinct identity, can you place them all in the same interdependent ecosystem? This is a great trick not only to bring extra life and details to your personas, but it makes them more memorable and relatable as you move through the design process. Here’s an example of an animal kingdom I helped develop to convey the different behaviors and mindsets of partners in the network of a large educational non-profit. Baby birds were new to the organization and needed a lot of mentorship and nourishment to thrive. Kings of the Jungle were established in their career or organization and appreciated being activated as thought leaders and big donors. While Honeybees were pollinators, vital to sharing information and making connections for the overall health of the network. With this hack, you’re building short-hand, design guidelines in ways that also can ladder up to a theory of change for how all the different pieces come together. Other grouping examples could be family members (cousins, aunties, village elders, rebels), parts of the city (tranit, buildings, theaters, parks), or ocean life (bivalves, anglerfish, merpeople, deep-sea divers).

Example of synthesized behavior archetypes of different organizations in a network as part of a project for Openbox for 1001Kin10 (2015).

3/ Write a love letter
Pick one of your personas and write a letter (or lunch box note, text message, email) from their perspective to someone important in their life. The note will convey a particular experience or wish in relation to something you’re designing. For example, when I was on a research team coming up with the concept for a gift registry for new moms, I wrote a bunch of personal notes from spouses and friends that I imagined might accompany the gifts. These notes were based on what I heard in our interviews with moms about how they wanted to be cared for, supported, and loved. This collection of notes helped inspire the design team when they were playing with the mood and flow of the registry. Here’s another example of a very dramatic letter to synthesize desk research as part of a project on the future of offices for a big tech company.

Snapshot from a breakup letter of a software engineer who decided to leave his family because his employer had made his whole life too convenient and smooth, while leaving little space for personal and political expression.

4/ Tell it from the future
I love kicking off a research presentation with a good futures scenario. You can ask people to close their eyes as you read them a short story about a moment or day in the life of someone 5–10 years from now that integrates the product or category that you’re designing for. This is a flavor of design fiction. Your story could weave in direct quotes, idealized scenarios, and real problems that you gathered in your research and also be creative — it’s meant to be inspirational, not 100% accurate. In the form of a short story and some visuals, it can be a fast and moving way to get your insights across to your audience. (Here are some examples: imagining a post-COVID city, an IKEA catalog from the near future, and envisioning 2219 in Singapore.)

Detail of IKEA catalog from the near future.

Lastly, synthesizing your own work is really hard. It can feel like trying to decide what in your closet you should keep or give away. Sometimes you need a good friend to come over with an IKEA bag and get real with you about what to let go. So rope in a friend (or two!) as a sounding board in synthesis. That person doesn’t need to know everything about your project, in fact, it’s better when they don’t!
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Adriana is faculty at SVA’s MFA in Interaction Design program and Head of Community at 3x3.

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Adriana Valdez Young

Mother, inclusive design researcher, indefatigable New Yorker, making things happen at the School of Visual Arts —MFA Interaction Design.