Making the case for synthesis


Jenea Hayes is a Design Director at Designit and faculty member at Cooper. She uses her obsession for what makes people tick to synthesize key details while keeping the whole system in mind. She is passionate about making products easier for consumers to use, and believes design thinking can have a radical effect on business solutions. With an undergraduate degree in psychology from Harvard, and a Masters in Cognitive Psychology from Stanford, Jenea applies rigorous thought to each stage of design, helping companies get great products and services out into the world.


In the 20 years I’ve been working in design research, particularly recently, I’ve witnessed a growing trend: The synthesis phase of projects is shrinking. That’s a problem. Here’s the thing: Research is expensive and extremely valuable, and synthesis is a solid half the value of the process. All too often it gets squeezed into a project plan, like a dark box that people don’t really understand, but it’s where the magic happens. 

What is synthesis anyway? Why is it important? Synthesis is the act of taking raw data and identifying the themes that matter. Essentially, it’s the process of going from information to insights. It’s how, as designers, we crystallize and then share back what we’ve learned about a population and domain. It involves lots of strategy and thoughtful reflection on how we communicate what we learned. It’s a critical step in ensuring we get the most out of the research, dollar for dollar.

With that in mind, here are three reasons why you need to make room in the budget and timeline for synthesis. 

If you’re not investing in the synthesis part of the research phase, you’re wasting your money. 

Synthesis is the difference between insights and observations—the ability to identify patterns and figure out which have meaning and impact. While it’s challenging to quantify the value of synthesis, the time required to simply take in, process, and really think about the patterns that come to light is pretty much everything when it comes to research.

For every hour of interviews, you should expect two hours of synthesis. 

Figuring out what was learned in research and what it really means, and what the implications are for your product or your business is analogous to a cheese: when it is very fresh it is rather mild, even bland. It’s fine, but not especially compelling. The longer you let the cheese ripen, the more interesting it gets. You can’t hurry a fine Roquefort, and you can’t hurry insight. 

Make sure the researcher is getting into the minds of the customer and out of the mind of the researcher.

The whole point of research is to get out of your own head. And yet I’ve been shocked by how often people don’t take the time to even read their notes from research. If you just go with what the researcher remembers you’ll get a reflection of the researcher’s mind: their own biases and pre-existing experiences they’ve had that influenced what they heard.  To be rigorous requires looking at was actually said in research, which takes time. 

To the extent that it’s possible, I have three tips for whomever is carrying out the research: First, I’m a big proponent of getting a transcript. You might literally not have heard something the first time. Typically when you take notes, they’re sketchy—as in, whatever you write down is a stronger reflection of what you specifically heard than what was said. That’s why, in addition to getting a transcript, it’s a good idea to take a few moments to immediately jot down notes (things like atmospheric details and someone banging a table with emphasis while they talked). And finally, have more than one person present during interviews. That way you can hash out what’s being interpreted versus observed. 

The takeaway? Put in the money up front, and it’ll pay dividends in the end. I promise. 


Interested in learning more about Cooper Professional Education and our philosophies around design and education? Read more on our curriculum and class schedules at

Jenea Hayes

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