It’s summertime, and I’m elbows-deep in user research for two (fab) health-related projects. And rule one of user research: your fieldwork ain’t worth anything unless you spend just as much effort (and time) analysing your data as you do collecting it.

So this means an almost weekly occurrence is what we, in the world of design research, call a synthesis session. These synthesis days (and they are usually full days) fill me in equal part with anticipation and an impending sense of exhaustion.

Anticipation in becoming reacquainted with the nuances of what people have said, to see themes emerge and to air the team’s different perspectives on what this actually means.

Exhaustion because it’s a huge amount of data, a reliably messy process and — perhaps most significantly — working in groups is hard.

The way we self-organise means group sessions often end up attributing power and air-time to those who are the loudest, the most confident and the quickest on their feet to respond to a point. In short, our ways of group working are not designed to give all team members equity in their voice. And this is a real shame when the richness of synthesis sessions comes from having a diversity of brains and perspectives on the problem at hand.

So what can we do? Set some friendly ground rules.

Here’s a starter of 10 rules I’m testing and iterating off the back of our collaboration with NHS Digital, where we’re designing the future of urgent and emergency care across England.

Sharing ground rules with the joint FutureGov & NHS Digital team

1. Represent the user group, not yourself

During prep for the synthesis day, everyone attending was assigned as the “owner” of a particular user group. This constituted a couple of interview transcripts (e.g. from elderly patients or emergency department staff) which was theirs to get truly acquainted with.

Then, on the day, we asked the team to leave their personal experiences at the door. That when we were discussing a finding, or during analysis and interpretation, they spoke only on behalf of the research conducted with that user group, and not their own lived experience.

2. Keep it accurate

Keeping it accurate meant being specific about whether you were sharing a direct quote/observation or your interpretation and analysis. On reflection, holding up an “analysis” card as a precursor could work really well (in the spirit of KJ’s brilliant “bias” cards).

Additionally, as we were synthesising the first of three research sprints, keeping it accurate meant not generalising. We’d conducted research in one location and still had two further sprints to go. Instead, the “emerging” or “working” findings could be framed as hypotheses for research in our other locations. (See more from Ben on hypothesis-led research.)

3. Rotate the role of facilitator

In this synthesis session, we were synthesising our data against our lines of enquiry (read: the things we wanted to learn). That provided a great opportunity to shake up the role of facilitator, rotating the (unenviable) responsibility of keeping the discussion on track and to time. As each of us learnt what it was like to have an eye on the clock, we became more empathic to the person running each session.

The facilitator was also in charge of pausing extraneous conversations. We created some “parking lots” by the door, things to follow up separately, and space for solutions and ideas. This gave us confidence as a team that the other things emerging from this dedicated team time wouldn’t get lost.

Rotating the role of facilitator kept us on track and to time

4. Put your hand up

As mentioned, a big challenge in group work can be grappling for a chance to speak. We decided to practice putting our hand-ups until lunchtime (and scrap it if it didn’t work). Sure, it felt funny to introduce and a little unnatural at the beginning. But as we got into the flow, guided by our rotating facilitator, it changed the entire dynamic of the session.

Instead of fighting for air-time, the person running each part of the day was able to identify who wanted to speak and draw all team members into the discussion. It felt calmer, more collaborative and opens up space.

5. Practice active listening

You could easily write an entire post around this. How rarely do we truly listen to one another, rather than waiting for our chance to speak?

We encouraged actively listening when others were talking and if a response, question or idea emerged, writing it down. Having a way to capture and share thoughts (without interrupting others) calmed the pace of the discussion.

Keep on iterating and improving those ground rules…

So, that’s five ground rules I’ve been using (and iterating) over recent synthesis sessions. I’d love to hear your ideas on how you keep synthesis sessions on track, to time and truly collaborative and how they can be facilitated to draw our the best insight from your fieldwork.

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