The single most, oft-asked question I get about my process is, "How do you do...what you do?" Sound abstract? It is! What people are really asking me is how I make sense of all the information gathered during design/experience audits or via customer research. Put that way, it seems like a simple enough Q/A, but the process of digesting, analyzing, and synthesizing a ton of inputs into a cogent, easy-to-understand, and actionable recommendation (that still ignites delight) is not so easy to explain.
The proof point of the complexity involved is painted in that anecdote, of people not really knowing what they're asking or how to ask it directly...there's recognition that something is going on, but what?
To the dismay of the individuals who have asked the question, I haven't always had a great answer. While I am not a "new age-y" person, my responses certainly sound as such. I've told people, "I immerse myself in the information (I don't like to call it data); I absorb it; I let it speak to me. I put it all up on a wall, surround myself with printouts, photos, screenshots, and post-its with my notes (a.k.a. brain farts) scrawled on them, and the information tells me what to do next...how it needs to be organized...answers emerge. And then I go from there."
It's not really the kind of answer that gives people explicit guidance. I have yet to have someone report back to me that they followed my advice to "become one with the capture" and have had success. That doesn't mean it hasn't happened, it only means I haven't heard about it (yet).
But on the other hand, perhaps it is the kind of answer that can give people the guidance they're looking for. The trick is to have a process, trust in it, and apply rigor to its practice. Here are some tips:
Use the walls
Create a project room (or, as I prefer to think of it, a "process room"), and paper the walls with everything you've collected to inform a recommendation. That might be photographs of people interviewed in research, places visited that have relevance to the client/problem, notes of seemingly random thoughts you've had since setting your mind to the problem at hand (hint: these are insights), screenshots taken from competitor sites or apps, etc. Put it all up on the wall, and do it in a way for things to be easily moved (don't use tape, use pushpins). This is step one, and it's essential. Getting off the computer, and away form tidy folders (or even messy desktops), and seeing the breadth of information all up together, staring you in the face, is the best way to get immersed in all there is to consider.
Look for the patterns
With everything on the wall, you're sure to be adding lots more of those random thoughts mentioned earlier. Put them on Post-its. One thought per Post-it (expense be damned). Write in big text, use a fat marker. Make your thoughts be visible! And, make them mobile—you'll want to move these around. Start looking for connections and patterns, and group the information on the wall accordingly. Eventually, some kind of organizing principle to your findings and thoughts will start to emerge. You'll begin to have "aha" moments (they feel rrrrrrreally good). You may find that you need to stop and go back to the collecting mode, to get more information. That's cool...go with what you feel.
Create a framework
Now that patterns and aha moments are emerging left and right, and you are feeling high on the brain adrenaline of discovery, progress, and seeing something smart emerge from a mess of info...it's time to get serious. Ask yourself: what does it all really mean? How does this answer the question or challenge I've been asked to solve? How can this be communicated to others (who haven't been part of the process) in a way they can grok?
Further organizing and moving around of all the pieces should be happening, as should editing. Pull out the things that are getting in the way of clarity. Don't get rid of them...just put them off to the side for further consideration later (they are still valuable and before you throw them away, you should re-visit them at least 2 times -- pro tip: I usually end up throwing at least half of them away). Start creating labels for the groupings you're making (and use a bigger-sized Post-it or letter-sized paper): they could be categorical titles (like, "top customer pain points" or, "brand differentiators"); they could be more process oriented (like, "Learn about the service," "Sign up for service," and "Start profile," -- this, incidentally, is the beginning of a customer journey map). The trick here is to let the information speak to you -- assert some thought to how things are organized, of course -- you're the designer, but in this case, think of seeing what's there akin to being a good listener.
All of this activity should help you arrive at a "framework". What's that? It's the underlying, supportive structure that you can use as the foundation for a recommendation, or a presentation. It gives shape to the information you've discovered and the insights you've developed. It's not unlike a storyline. It should have an arc, one that others can follow, and one that has a conflict, climax, and resolution.
Build on the framework
If you think of the framework like the wooden skeleton of a house, this step is all about adding the walls, thinking about traffic flows, and describing how the space works. Use blank sheets of letter-sized paper cut in half (a.k.a., "half sheets") to condense all the Post-its and other material grouped together. Figure out what you need to say, in the simplest way possible, to translate and transfer what you've learned. Replace everything on the wall with this original thought, the stuff in your head, using the framework as an organizing structure to add reason, rationale, and background to the "answer" you've been charged with to define and recommend.
Answer the question
After doing everything above, the "answer" you seek may be clear. If it's not (or even if it is), walk friendly teammates and co-workers through the thought process (i.e. framework), and test out its communication. See if it makes sense. It's important to expose an audience to your thinking at this point. Having been in the weeds for all this time, there are bound to be some rough spots. Make adjustments as necessary (sometimes this requires re-organizing the framework and banging your head against the wall...). The key here is to be open to being wrong, or confusing, and being willing to take a step back. Maybe even several times.
I have described this process to be similar to how I tidy up the house: moving piles around until the piles disappear and everything is in its right place. In this case, it's moving information and insights around until they make sense and tell a story. I'm sure everyone can put their own unique spin on doing this; we all have different ways of processing information. That might be why it's always been hard for me to answer the question, "How do you do...what you do?" Thinking is a highly personal endeavor, after all. But, it can be shared, and should be.