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The Define Stage

Now we have collected data - how do we make sense of it? Elna a Design Factory coach explains how.
Kia ora, everyone. I’m Eleanor from the Design Factory in New Zealand. So we’ve entered the define stage. This is the stage where we’ve gone from taking lots of information, and we’re starting to really pull together and converge to try and make new meaning and find new understanding from all of the information we’ve gathered. This is a process of synthesis. We’re really digging deep into our data and trying to understand what’s really going on in there. So what happens in that define phase? Well, we start with unpacking. We take all of the data we’ve gathered from primary and secondary research during our empathise phase and we unpack it. We put everything out to try and understand what’s going on.
From there, we start making connections. We look for similar information. Were we repeating ourselves, were we finding people saying similar things, or sometimes are we finding people saying different things? And then we try to make sense of the information. We are asking questions like what’s really being said here? What else is going on? What are the patterns that are emerging, what are the broad themes? From those, we’re trying to find new points of focus. We’re trying to understand what the real challenges are. We might create empathy maps, where we’re trying to understand what users think, feel, say, or do. And from that we’re trying to identify pain points or opportunities for where we can ideate.
If we’re thinking about experiences, we might look at journey mapping. Where we’re trying to map through a customer or user’s journey from the start to the end, and along that journey we might find points which weren’t great. Say, for example, mapping out a buying experience where a purchases something and then uses it. Along that journey, there will be some points that are good, and positive experiences, but there may be some points that aren’t. And this helps us identify areas where we can develop new ideas or solutions to problems. Another way that we might use to define is affinity mapping, and that’s the process we’re going to get you to engage in.
This is where we’re finding affinity, or connections, between the bits of data that we have. But I’ll let Aiden talk to you more about that. Key things to remember about the define phase. Whatever process you use, whatever tool you use, is that it can be messy. Much like unpacking and repacking a suitcase, we’re talking about unpacking and repacking, grouping and ungrouping and regrouping the data. Trying to find the best fit and trying to really understand what’s going on. This is important, because what we’re trying to do is seek out what the real problem or the root cause might be, and this is where we can start ideating from. The thing is, it’s going to take time and space.
So you have to give yourself the opportunity to really live with the data to understand what’s going on there, to dig a little bit deeper. Doing that is going to help you find those root causes and that’s important because how can you solve a challenge if you don’t actually know what the challenge is? So, go, have fun with the data. Really live with it. Go and understand what you found out. Look at those interviews. See what you can uncover. And then, you can move into the next phase. Ka kite, everyone.

Before we go into the define stage we would normally do a stocktake to ensure we have collected the right data from the right sources, and identified any gaps. For example, have we asked a cleaner their opinions? Have we talked to waste experts? Have we talked to packagers? If not we would stay in the empathy stage for a little bit longer and collect that information.

In this exercise we don’t have time to delve into a wide range of information (or deeply) so lets make sure we have:

  • Your secondary research notes (answers to the questions compelted in step 1.6)
  • Your primary research notes (data from 5 interviews from step 1.7)

The start of the sense making phase is to go through your collected data and HIGHLIGHT any information that you believe is key to understanding the challenge. If the same data is repeated from different sources we still highlight it. e.g. if two people say they don’t think about the waste they create then make sure it is highlighted for each person.


Have a listen to Elna Fourie, a Design Factory Coach at DFNZ, introduce the Define stage. She will explain the importance of the stage and some ways we can make sense of the data.

What is one new thing you have learnt from the Elnas explanation of the Define stage.

Comment below.

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Design Thinking for Sustainable Development

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