Discovery Operations Guide


HCD Discovery Operations Cycle illustration with every step except Synthesis and Communicate grayed out.


NOTE: This introduction page appears in the HCD Discovery Concept Guide as well.

Synthesis is when the team of researchers comes together, brings to the table all of the interviews and qualitative research they’ve gathered, and looks for patterns and themes across the research. In some situations, you will be doing synthesis in your research pairs, while in other situations, you will bring your synthesized research to a larger group for further, cross-group synthesis.

Think of synthesis as a group effort to filter all of your field data through the lens of the Project Brief. See the model below for a visualization. We take the individual interview or workshop or observation, and during synthesis, we look at them through the single, project brief lens, in order to focus the research together according to patterns, similarities, or dissimilarities.

We take the interviews, findings, and qualitative research data collected, and we filter them through the Project Brief lens, in order to identify data that is most relevant to the research topic. Then, we reflect on the relevant data and work to identify common patterns or trends.

Environment and Materials

Find a quiet space where you and your team can talk and interact over the course of a half-day or day. Make sure this space has tables or desks, adequate lighting, and, ideally, clear window and wall spaces.

Have on hand the following supplies: pens, paper, and tape. Also helpful to have are sticky notes, markers, and presentation-style paper tablets or rolls. The visual aids you make with these materials will help you sort, arrange, and rearrange your research findings so as to find patterns and trends.


Find Root Causes

As our Guiding Principles (p. 5) state, finding the root causes of attitudes, feelings, or behaviors are some of the key insights we drive towards in HCD discovery. If your research has been directionalized to understand why something is the way it is, then the root cause, or the reason why, will be discovered during this synthesis phase.

How to Collaborate

Synthesis is a collaborative process with your whole team. Although it is not brainstorming, Synthesis can look and feel similar. The crucial difference is that a brainstorm is mostly ad hoc, random thinking, while Synthesis thinking is rigorously guided by a larger research question or topic. You collaborate, process information, document, and some cases generate ideas. The following guidelines from’s Design Kit, are useful to keep in mind during synthesis.

  • Defer judgment: Be open to any and all observations and ideas from anyone. Resist the urge to judge or edit others or yourself.
  • Build on the ideas of others: Listen and encourage others. Think of how you can add to others’ ideas and support them.
  • Stay focused on the topic: Keep the greater purpose in mind. Know the scope of the synthesis and stay in bounds.
  • One conversation at a time: Be present in the moment. Give your full attention to the person speaking and listen first.
  • Go for quantity: This applies when you are either transcribing things you learned or when you’re generating ideas. You can edit later.

Invite each person in the room to contribute, especially if one or two people seem to be dominating the conversation.