Organizing and Synthesizing Data

A guest post from Fearless UX Designer Antoine RJ Wright

Fearless designer Antoine Wright

In many years working across content, web, and various industry spaces, I’ve often found success in creating frameworks enabling an ease in synthesizing and sharing information. Every so often, this sensemaking becomes a shared process, helping others also better manage information and its bandwidth across contexts.

For this level of sensemaking, I use four primary methods to make sense out of data flows. Following some lessons from the measurable Human Shannon Bandwidth (roughly 41 bits per second), I aim to make the most out of the increasing amount of information across various devices and channels without losing the core meaning for myself or others who need to interact with it. These four methods (frameworks) communicate the overall fidelity of that process: Structure, Synthesis, Sharing, and Search.

As data comes in, these frameworks model methods of understanding amidst the flow.

Structure:

The first aspect of this framework walks alongside an admission of not being able to deal with everything. “Structure” speaks to the place where the data live, and the activity of quickly assigning value to it for later reflection and synthesizing. I structure most data across the following content types:

  • Sketches and Scribbles: a quick sketch or annotation on paper (Post-It/Field Notes/Moleskine/Notes) or Muse
  • Outline/Mind Map: For data already with some structure, a mind map or outline is its parking space.
  • Bonus: Avancee Reads Shortcut: Because my workstation is an iPad, I leverage a custom shortcut (macro) to save links, pictures, PDFs, etc. The shortcut automatically puts into Evernote or Muse for archival and synthesis, and queues the item to be shared via several methods instantly.

Synthesis:

If you looked at the notes on my tablet, you would be hard-pressed to find the connecting points. But, sensemaking is not very complicated. To make sense of the collected data, I distill into two buckets:

  1. Is this something requiring deeper thought before being communicated?
  2. Is it something in which sharing to others immediately adds to its eventual value?

From these two paths, the road to the next content types are selected through synthesizing all of the available information. Most times, I will leverage multiple content types noted here before figuring out the best route.

  • Whiteboard: I have six physical whiteboards around my apartment with something written on all of them. On some of these boards the ink is month’s old with contemplation, other boards have hours/days old ink. Before I erase the board, it’s photographed into Muse and Evernote.
  • Muse: Probably the most frequent application I use that isn’t a browser, Muse fosters creating deeper connections and threads until they are clear enough for being exported or shared.
  • Miro: For collaborative and connective items with our CMS HCD team, Miro has become a powerful tool. Besides the ease in sharing, it offers multiple device usage, bridging solo, team, and presentation formatting.
  • Paste/Slides/PowerPoint: Here things go from lo-fi to hi-fi. The most high fidelity and clearest communicated items reach a presentation deck format. Not necessarily a conclusion to synthesis, but it gives enough shape to the data for others to pick up and run with it in a direction they need.

Sharing:

This title is a bit of a misnomer. Sharing items doesn’t always mean the content has to go to another party, but it does mean that I format the content for the ease of sharing. Unlike the previous states, Sharing is an intent — meaning the item which had been synthesized does not stay in place, but has some intended outcome it should support. This offloading step keeps me focused less on controlling what the data does or what it means, and makes sure it remains applicable to the next users of it.

  • Give and Go: At a macro-level I’ve consumed it, but it really needs to go elsewhere. The previously mentioned Avanceé Reads Shortcut enables this since it doesn’t just archive, but preps the item for whom it’s destined to next.
  • Collaborate: The item needs more eyes and hands in order to shape the eventual value. Often this is Miro or a shared document, but can also be as simple as a marked-up PDF, or as lengthy as a Zoom session. The best of these become templates for future iterations..
  • Template: Outlines, or content types, others use for their efforts. When done well, I often don’t even see the template anymore as the team has furthered the template beyond my initial scoping.

Search:

Many people have different opinions for search indexes. Mine sits in a space hewn between an engineer and a journalist: “Machines calculate and humans find insights.” Using the indexes on devices and across various connected services, my goal is to leverage the best of what machines do, freeing my facilities to make connections (aka, “sensemaking”).

  • Leverage the machine: Drawing on the previous mention of the iPad being my workstation, Spotlight and Siri are frequent assistants. Often, it’s as simple as initializing the search from the lock or home screen, however there’s also those applications which use a file browser and search box, where I’ll type into the field the item I am looking for. Which also means, I don’t use folders. Search is faster, so I use it.
  • Bookmarks/Memory Palace: I also use the concept of a memory palace (spatial bookmark) for some items (which is why I have a half dozen whiteboards around my apt). Some whiteboards are for short-term goals, others for long term experiments and goals. And because of the time we live in, I have a whiteboard dedicated to possible COVID symptoms which arise from interactions with people across 14 day periods.
  • Understand and embrace your limitations: I can’t remember everything, and you probably can’t either. As a matter of fact, a childhood accident altered how my brain processes short-term memories. So while there’s often high-fidelity memories from a long time ago, those “what happened 10 minutes ago” memories are less clear. Leveraging these tools and behaviors (in my case) is adapting and working with my limitations. And at the same time, keeps me focused on what I can control, versus what I cannot.

Creating Your Sensemaking Framework

Now, this method is highly customized to how I’ve worked over several years, but hopefully, this gets you started with thinking about similar methods. Figure out the structure you want to have, and be honest with the time you can give to synthesize items once they get there. Embrace what needs to be shared, but also understand that more and more items can leverage the search capabilities of your local and connected devices and services. Take it a bit at a time, allowing for room to make changes as you and your behaviors evolve. My whiteboards have changed over the years, and I’ve alternated between Evernote and other tools, it happens.

The most important takeaway here is to understand the way you process information — how you synthesize information and what you do with that. If you can get your mind wrapped around those questions and methods, then the way that you organize data is going to be 100% yours and 100% reproducible.

Hi, we’re Fearless, a full stack digital services firm in Baltimore that builds software with a soul. https://fearless.tech