Data diving, dive bar-ing… and synthesis

Last week Ruby wrote a great post on the progress of our research to date.   This week I’d like to share some thoughts on our process, and the reality of funneling massive amounts of data into usable design criteria.

To put it bluntly, the past week has been all about marinating in data.  We’ve meticulously transcribed hours of video into processable data.  We’ve filled excel spreadsheets with annotated quotations linked to various images and artifacts.  We’ve scheduled interviews, interviewed, rescheduled interviews, and interviewed again.  We’ve made videos and filled whiteboards… we drank a lot of coffee.

Through those processes we’ve managed to refine our focus several times, each time re-assessing with whom we need to do our next interview.  More data.  And more data.  And more data.

This week, however, was also a turning point.  It really felt like we were able to begin synthesis in earnest, and as we did we finally brought some clarity to all this data.

Synthesis itself is an amazing part of the design process, and in the past week I’ve seen it take two distinct forms: The formal – framed by rigor, process, and rules – and the informal, framed by everything that happens in between.

Data Diving: You need to spend hours with your data.  You need to spend the time coding, reading, writing, tracking, watching, and soaking in it.  That means hours in front of whiteboards, surrounded by piles of notes, trying to make sense of it all.  In my experience this step is essential, and often leaves me feeling energized but overwhelmed; my head buzzing, attempting to link hundreds of data points into some sort of coherent message – looking for that ah-ha.

Dive Bar-ing: And then you need to turn off the computer, walk away from the whiteboard and re-enter life.  Go to a bar, drink some cheap beer, and have a conversation about anything but what you’ve been working on.  This is when life fills in the second part of the equation.  It’s the conversations you have, the things you see, the smallest interactions, that are now framed in the context of the data you’ve been absorbing.  Your brain is synthesizing while you walk down the street, when you ask someone for directions, and while you sleep.

So after days of formal synthesis, we stepped away from the data.  Then today in class we had an unexpected hour to work on our project.  I mention that it was unexpected because having unscheduled time often just as valuable as having scheduled time.  We didn’t have an agenda, or a plan on how to spend the time synthesizing… so Ruby held an impromptu interview session with everyone in class on a topic that emerged from our first round of formal synthesis.  Then the two of us sat on the floor in the kitchen of the studio and talked through how the new data informed our initial data.  The informal setting made it easy to talk about our research informally, and allowed us to begin making those links (between rigorously collected data points) that had been marinating in our heads for the past few days.

We had several great breakthroughs and it finally feels like we’re rouding the first corner of the research process; clarifying our intentions along the way.  So what were the breakthroughs?  You’ll have to come to our presentation next week to find out.

Rigor + Life = Design Ideas.

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