Package 3: Research & Synthesis

Master of Design Futures, RMIT School of Design

Matt Kurowski
8 min readFeb 2, 2021


by Matt Kurowski, January 2022

Photo by Andrew George on Unsplash

Introduction & Overview

Welcome to Package 3 where we cover A Lot of Stuff - this package spans a significant set of activities. It’s big because your next step, research, is a big loopy set of activities. So that means that this Package is the only one you’ll get for a couple of weeks, to give you the time to go through a few process (and maybe emotional) loops to get to an evidence-based understanding of the current state of your challenge.

But first, a recap on how we got here:

  1. From assessment 1 you’ve taken a market sweep using desk research, gone down some rabbit holes, and shaped your research into some foundational framing for the future
  2. You’ve got a solid understanding of the client’s brief
  3. You’re keen to meet with some stakeholders to understand their relationship to each other as well as to your client.

What now? Let’s add some real primary research to your desk research and move towards A2.

There are five buckets of activities you’ll be doing over the next couple of weeks. While presented as linear, there will be loops and going back and forward to test, think, rethink, re-envision, argue, prove all your work. This is the work you do once you’ve done the work.


Interviews (one week)
You’ll want to get as many participants interviewed as possible in this time frame. Use a semi-structured approach, perhaps around 5 or 6 questions. Remember to keep the questions “open”, allowing the participant the space to freely answer with as little influence from you as possible.

Here are two good reads to guide your approach to interviews. You’ll need your RMIT email address to log in to them:

Photo by Natasha Miller on Unsplash

While central to these interviews is the conversation itself, consider inviting participants to use an empathy map to prime themselves and provide you with some critical evidence while you’re interviewing them. Asking them to complete this map specific to a key outcome or activity (Christensen’s job to be done theory is good here) will help ground and focus the activity and set the participant up well to speak further.

PRO TIP: Empathy maps can also be used as rich tools of collaborative sense-making where you, as the researcher, ask the participant to detail their responses further. This can lead to really deep explorations of behaviours, expectations, motivations, contradictions and synergies for further development later on.

Other things to consider are:

  1. Participant selection — who do you have access to? How are they informing and limiting your strategic focus (if you have one)? Have you considered “never-customers” who are deeply against your client’s business? What about suppliers, partners and competitors?
  2. What do you want to find out? Make some bullet notes about what you’re mainly interested in from the interview. The visual prompt can help you intuit if you’re “getting everything you need” or not.
  3. What do you want to prove? Bias and assumption are an essential part of the human condition. They’re also a pain because they get in the way of (impossible) objectivity. Bear in mind your own bias, as it is often the main barrier between “rich representative material/data” and your belief that you are/aren’t getting what you need.
  4. Data capture Stay present to your interviewee by avoiding screens. Note take with paper, audio/video (permission is important) and transcribe later.
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Analysis & synthesis

In simple terms, analysis is the pulling apart of material into more granular units of meaning. A way to think of this is to consider an interview as a house made of Lego, and the material (or data) is the individual blocks: each block is similar to the others and different in some ways too, each has it’s own basic fundamental “sense”, and contributes to the house by what it is individually and how it relates to the blocks around it, both directly and indirectly.

Synthesis, on the other hand, is re-composing material to make sense of it in useful and interesting ways. Following on from the Lego house analogy above, we might say that the individual blocks of the house (the material or data) can be recomposed into a window from the house (or any part of the house from which they were derived) or into a fish, a cloud, a set of instructions to build a house (or a fish or a cloud). From there we can then consider and question whether what we’ve synthesised is: representative; useful; compelling; or none of these things. It’s one thing to recompose what was a house into a fish, it’s another to have people interested in the fish. If no-one’s interested, make a note of the outcome then dismantle the fish and put the blocks back into the main pile.

Chapter 2 of Design Thinking : A Guide to Creative Problem Solving for Everyone provides some great ways to think about these two critical activities in the designer’s toolkit.

Having collected all your material, head to your safe space and lock yourself away for a while. Water and snacks help. Here’s one way to get into and “do” synthesis (just bear in mind that it’s different for everyone and is the least quantifiable form of value-laden action in the whole “design process”):

Shorthand into useful snippets on post-it notes onto a wall. Use coding if needed (e.g. M20W = male 20y.o. white - just remember they’re for your personal use as a mnemonic device, not an attack on participant identity or a foray into political incorrectness), and keep the writing usefully high level (“easy” is less useful than “easily lets me sign up”).
You’ll end up with a messy coloured array of summarised material.

Data considerations
Check out warm data, thick data and big data in relation to your research so far. Don’t go crazy, it’s overwhelming. Just consider how you’re capturing and transcribing what you’ve got, and see if you are capturing all three “types”. It’ll help you ensure you’re keeping a broad approach.

Affinity mapping & theming
Look for similarities and differences and cluster them. This’ll take a lot of massaging to have it feel “right”, but you should end up with a number of clusters. Then NAME that cluster usefully. Some people might go with functional siloes as a way to shape their clusters. Try to cluster and theme as your participant might. The more your themes represent organisation-speak, the less likely they are to be useful.
Now that we’ve transcribed the material from our research it’s time to start playing with it. Last activity you moved your interview outputs ultimately into a Miro board. Now we’re going to start moving the sticky notes around to look for patterns, repetitions, relationships and contradictions. We call this “first moving around of the sticky notes” affinity mapping.

Also, here’s a good paper written by some excellent RMIT academics on affinity — you’ll want pp116–118 as an introduction, although the whole paper is only 8 pages and, if you want a peep into the real design superpower that is pattern-finding, then read it all!

Describe findings
These themes might be described as “findings” when it comes to a report. They’re not necessarily AMAZING. They’re a statement of credibility, and likely your client will go “yep, yep, interesting, yep, yep, yep” as you relate them. Don’t be tricked. This isn’t the end. It’s just proving that your approach works. DON’T STOP HERE.

Getting to insight
To me, insight is a big, neck-hair-raising “did you know that…” which you find, either alone or through collaboration, and gets you and your team excited. That’s really oversimplified. But the point is insight puts the “new” in “nuanced” — it’s like each insight is a mini-PhD, a definition of new knowledge, just without four-plus years of suffering to colour the experience.
I suggest you start by drawing lines between your findings, describing the relationships, and then asking “so what”. Do this a few times between two findings that you’re particularly interested in (can’t help that bias, can we?) and then expand to include three, four or more findings. This kind of sifting forces you to consistently reframe, reconsider and play with all the stuff you’ve explicitly and implicitly experienced, and to try to grapple with it toward something interesting.
You might not find anything. But you probably will. Just be curious, determined, walk away for a day, come back, talk with friends, share your findings with your cat, play squash and ignore it (peripheral thinking, “on the backburner” etc.) and see how you go.

N.B. If you want to dive deeper, Jon Kolko is a really good read on this stuff.

Photo by Santiago Lacarta on Unsplash

PRO TIP #1: consider digital and analogue tools. Analogue tools are great for silence and a direct conversation with yourself and the material, but they suffer from being only in one place. Digital tools are great for remote work and sharing-at-a-distance, but they typically suck at the proprioceptive, visuo-spatial benefits of moving real things around a real space. It’s like hand-writing is to typing: the act of moving things physically is in itself a mode of synthesis.

PRO TIP #2: use journey maps, service blueprints, 8Ps, empathy maps, stakeholder maps, compare current and future state, and imagine linking them all up like the crazy policeperson who is determined to capture the baddie by using string to link everything up in their basement room. This is called a “crazy wall”. It is also a good example of sensemaking and working towards an evidence-based hypothesis of the preferred future (a.k.a design in practice).

Photo by Christian Kaindl on Unsplash

Next package

As mentioned up the top, this package covers two weeks of activity to get you to your Assessment 2 submission. Our next package, then, is geared towards shaping the “So What?” of all your research to date: recommendations, concepts and arguments for the future state of the client’s offering.



Matt Kurowski

Senior consultant and advisor for sustainable organisational innovation (SMEs); industry fellow at RMIT School of Design.