Making synthesis visible

Although we synthesize information every day, the activity of synthesis is often thought as mysterious or described as hard to explain. In simple words, synthesis is a turning point in problem solving: when we crystallize understanding and start to see connections from among the many discoveries and ingredients from our analysis. Whether if you are doing research or are engaged in creative work, the goal of this step is to give an order or a supporting rationale to individual pieces. In other words, synthesis refers to the activity of finding answers to the “what does it mean to have X, Y, Z clusters or these ingredients?”

So far, this is one cognitive activity that cannot be entirely replaced by technology, which means that you must do the work to make sense of whatever you have in front of you; and this takes time and effort, but it is also the most interesting part as it is when you start discovering and learning: a new possible design solution, a new theory, new ways to achieve a goal. There are multiple ways that you can support synthesis. As it occurs inside our heads in unconscious ways, most techniques and strategies aimed at externalizing the thinking process by some visual means, like post-it notes and color coding, sketching and prototyping. Visuals help make synthesis less abstract, and more tangible.

The larger or more complex the data set, the more visual techniques will help you bring structure to the process. Finding the techniques that best support your needs is the first step. What it matters is using them in a systematic and deliberate way to look for connections, relationships and patterns.

Synthesis visual strategies

Predefined coding. When you work with an initial set of codes or categories, use color consistently to code the data.

Articulate coding. Use labels to explain your rationale behind the analysis to third party, and facilitate connection-making.

Open discussion. Engage in conversation and go over coded material with another person to start identifying connections, clusters and patterns from different points of view.

Visualize connections. Either on a wall, whiteboard or table, or on a digital collaborative whiteboard, make connections visible and encourage collaboration to make new ones. This is the foundation for new understanding to emerge.

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