About this guide
This guide discusses the ethical considerations of the design synthesis process including how to do it in a more collaborative way.
What is Synthesis?
Synthesis is the process of transforming the outcomes of a group design activity into a cohesive format. Depending on the goals of your co-design process, synthesis may include prioritizing ideas, identifying relationships between ideas, highlighting similarities and differences, merging common ideas, and/or identifying concrete next steps. Synthesis is most effective when those who are impacted by a design participate directly in the process, and when its outcomes reflect their priorities, perspectives, and voices.
Some examples of synthesis include:
- Creating visualizations and summaries (e.g. mind maps, flow charts, etc.) of verbal or textual input
- Building a group story from multiple narratives
- Organizing ideas into common themes using digital sticky notes, spreadsheets or other tools
- Highlighting differing or conflicting needs, ideas or perspectives
- Identifying actionable design ideas within personal narratives
- Creating a prioritized list of needs, preferences or design features
Traditional design research approaches define synthesis as the process of translating research data into actionable knowledge or design features1. In these approaches synthesis is done by the research or design team once the research stage is complete. This means that participants, who are often put in the position of research subjects, do not have a say in how their ideas are being interpreted.
In a co-design approach participants are included in the synthesis process wherever possible. This guide describes some common synthesis pitfalls as well as co-design approaches that can help to avoid them.
For more information about synthesis and suggested activities see Synthesizing Co-design Outcomes.
Things to Consider
Synthesis is a process of interpretation rather than a revelation of the truth. What "makes sense" to each of us is highly informed by our context, our culture, our environment, and the community or communities we are a part of. Our worldview can influence what we count as data, how we interpret the data, what information we think is worth sharing and ultimately what story we tell. When applied to co-design outcomes, this bias can result in inaccurate or incomplete interpretation of the data.
Awareness of bias is a good start to reducing its impact on synthesis, but awareness alone is not enough. We can’t know someone else’s lived experience or assume their perspective; for this reason it is important that co-design participants are involved in the process of synthesis as much as possible.
One example of synthesis bias comes from the academic research done by settlers on Indigenous peoples in colonized states, resulting in harm to First Nations communities. These research outcomes are "commonly presented in a manner that emphasizes Indigenous peoples' 'difference, disparity, disadvantage, dysfunction, and deprivation' in relation to the non-Indigenous colonizer. These sorts of descriptions create narratives that serve to propagate negative stereotypes regarding indigenous communities, and define - in the colonizer's terms - who an indigenous person is, who they should be, and who they cannot be in the dominant society."2
Maintaining diverse voices
The act of synthesis often involves the merging of diverse findings into a single story or narrative. Multiple narratives from the original context might be collapsed into one, or one narrative may be prioritized over others. In addition, the temptation may be to identify common needs or find a design solution that will meet the needs of the “average” person. This approach opposes the goals of co-design, which is to understand and meet the unique needs of diverse groups. Thinking creatively about how to document a plurality of perspectives in the co-design outcomes will help to ensure that the diversity of voices is not lost.
One example is provided by an IDRC project aiming to co-design inclusive design guidelines for virtual care systems that address the diversity of human needs, including cognitive, age-related and cultural barriers. In this case the goal was “to organize experiences, barriers, and successes into guidelines while maintaining the individuality of the experiences, i.e., extract the essence while maintaining the richness of context and perspective”. Through this process of co-design it was possible to distill the rich personal content into guidelines while maintaining a diversity of voices.
The more you can involve those in the community you are working with in your process of synthesis, the better. This helps to ensure that the co-design outcomes are interpreted in a way that reflects the priorities, perspectives, and voices of those most impacted by the design. The following section describes various approaches to synthesis that involve co-design participants to varying degrees. These approaches range from engaging members in participatory checkpoints to having community members take on the synthesis process completely.
Iterative, participatory synthesis
Synthesis can be approached as an iterative process in which co-design participants provide input on the synthesized results in multiple stages prior to finalization. An iterative approach gives co-designers the chance to correct any misinterpretations and to help shape the final narrative.
An example of this is provided by Sara Florence Davidson when she took the following approach in working with her father Robert Davidson:
"I recorded each interview, transcribed it, and returned the transcript to my father for his review before doing the next interview. I began the final three interviews by asking questions and clarifying my understandings from the previous interview. When I felt that I understood what my father was sharing with me, I wrote up my interpretations of his stories. I then shared my writing with him, and he clarified his ideas and suggested changes when he felt I had misunderstood his intent.” 3
Synthesis as co-design
Rather than thinking of synthesis as something to do once the co-design is completed, you might consider it part of the co-design process. You can hold a co-design session with the original participants to allow them to collectively view and interpret the findings themselves.
Jessa Rogers developed an Indigenous research method called "photoyarn" that she used with Maori girls in boarding schools in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. This method "was developed as a method students could use to drive and control their own research, on their own experiences, using student photography, yarning and yarning circles".4
Through photoyarn, "student photographs are analyzed by the students themselves in a yarning circle. The yarns are recorded and transcribed by the researcher for the next session where the same process occurs with the textual data: quotes from the yarns are grouped according to topic or theme, with the students reading their quotes (printed and cut into separate quotes by the researcher prior to the session). Students first then decide upon the theme of each quote, and then group the quotes into piles of major or similar themes."
Consider opening the synthesis process up to include your co-design participants and other members of the community you are working with. When deciding who to include in the synthesis process, ask yourself:
- Who has enough knowledge of the context and lived experience of participants to make sense of the data and construct the story accurately?
- Who gets the final say on whether the synthesis is telling the right story or not?
When you open your synthesis process up to those outside the co-design group, remember to ask for consent from participants to share their ideas with the broader community. In some cases, participants may prefer to have their ideas made anonymous, since there can be a social risk to co-designers if the person who has access to the information is also someone who is in a position of power in the community. In other cases, it may be important to participants and to the co-design process to clearly attribute the ideas to individual co-designers or co-design teams.
When doing synthesis together with co-design participants it is also important to protect any private information (e.g. address, phone number, medical history) that might have been shared with facilitators but was not freely shared with the larger group during the co-design session.
One approach to synthesis is to support community members in synthesizing the co-design outcomes themselves. Depending on the community’s interest, skill set and level of confidence, this might take the form of a completely hands-off approach, or it may involve mentoring or other support from designers. It helps to have a clear plan and agreement with community members and participants ahead of time, so that the co-design activities and methods of documenting the outcomes will best support community members in doing their own synthesis.
Maintaining diverse voices
Your co-design activity can be designed in a way that elicits and documents the diverse narratives of participants, rather than moving toward a single group narrative or solution.
As part of a collaborative project with the City of Toronto and the Inclusive Design Research Centre, an urban development proposal was evaluated in order to assess its accessibility and inclusiveness. Several individuals with diverse needs and backgrounds joined the project as co-designers. Each individual was tasked with journaling their experiences around the city over a period of two weeks. In a subsequent workshop, participants joined other members of the community to form small groups and share their experiences. Each group worked together to create a story that captured and represented individual co-designers’ experiences in the city. The research team used these stories to develop a set of evaluation guidelines, which were then applied to the development proposal in order to flag risks, identify gaps, and point out missing information.
For more details about this project and to read the stories, please visit this link: https://wecount.inclusivedesign.ca/views/we-count-evaluates-torontos-quayside-master-innovation-and-development-plan/
- Design Synthesis - A Step by Step Guide
- All About Us - Indigenous Data Analysis Workshop
- Make Your Mind Strong: My Father's Insights into Academic Success
- Photoyarn: Aboriginal and Maori girls' researching contemporary boarding school experiences