It's best to conduct synthesis as soon as possible after finishing your research sessions when everything is fresh in folks' minds. If you have a tried-and-true method for doing synthesis you are welcome to follow that AND we encourage you to share it with other researchers. If you do NOT have a preferred way of doing synthesis the following guidance should help you and your team. Feel free to reach out to other researchers to learn about their methods.

Process

The key things you’ll want to get out of your synthesis in order to write up your research findings are:

  • 5-10 top findings/themes along with supporting quotes

  • Determine whether you proved your hypotheses true or false

  • Come up with recommendations based on your findings, including supporting evidence

Synthesis Methods

Every designer and user researcher has a preferred method of doing synthesis. The important things to remember are:

  1. Be objective

  2. Make sure that someone else could repeat your synthesis and come to the same conclusion

  3. Make sure your process for synthesis is clearly documented

Post-Its (Virtual or IRL)

This is a classic method of user research synthesis that allows you and your team to visualize the research results. This method is traditionally managed in person, but there are lots of tools that enable remote teams to participate now (MURAL; see articles below on how to do remote post-it synthesis with your team). Although you should have one person taking verbatim notes for you during each session, other team members who are observing should be invited to participate. This method works best when observers are creating post-its in real-time, as they are observing the session, or immediately after. This is also a great method for in-person research, or research studies conducted in a short period of time (e.g. 1-2 days onsite at a VAMC).

As team members observe the session, have them write down:

  • Quotes or paraphrases

  • Observations about their work/interview environment (if you were able to interview on-site)

  • Emotional state: Were they tired? Confused? Nervous? Did they seem more confident talking about some parts compared to others?

  • Conclusions: Are there any themes to what they’re saying that are worth capturing as a whole? Use these sparingly and make sure the whole team agrees so you don’t formalize an assumption.

Create groupings of the individual post-its: By task, by user, by research question or goal, etc. Do this multiple times; it will help you see new themes or patterns. Combine the quotations and observations into themes (use different colored post-its to designate the themes). Use the themes to come up with conclusions (again, new post-it color for conclusions). Highlight “user needs” on a different colored post-it. Highlight “next steps” on yet another colored post-it.

Qualitative Content Analysis/Coding

This is a communication research method that works well for user interviews because it helps the researchers be systematic and thorough in interpreting results, finding themes and insights, and making recommendations. This method also makes it easy for others to understand how you reached your conclusions and makes your results more trustworthy. However, it is time consuming. Having a full transcript of your interviews plus observations is really important to be able to accurately capture what users said.

This method involves assigning codes to the interview text and observations. Once you familiarize yourself with your transcripts, define your codes. Make sure that anyone who will be helping you with synthesis is involved in this process, so you are in agreement about how you want to code your research. Your research questions and goals, the tasks you asked participants to complete, user reactions are all examples of code categories. The codes might include quantitative ratings of success (e.g. 3 = user successfully completed task; 2 = user completed task, but with prompt; 1 = user did not successfully complete task; 0 = user did not start task). It is helpful to make a codebook in excel or any other program you choose, so that you have a record of the code categories and the codes themselves. Here is a sample codebook.

You'll go through each interview and assign codes as you go, based on your codebook. Once you've coded each interview, you can use the codes to identify and define themes, which can then be turned into recommendations. Excel and Reframer (part of the Optimal Workshop suite, which va.gov has access to) are both great tools to use to conduct this type of analysis. Reframer allows you to break up user interviews by participant, to parse out quotations and observations, to assign colors to code categories, and to group codes into themes. Excel is a classic analysis tool that can facilitate analysis and can be read by most data-viz tools, if you choose to do that.

Articles on synthesis