Step two: How do we gain an empathetic understanding of the problem at hand?


So, you’re tackling a complex educational problem using design thinking? 

You’ve already completed the first step of this process – immersion. You’ve immersed yourself in the problem at hand and discovered the right questions to ask. 

Now, you’re ready to conduct research to start answering those questions.

Let’s dive into step two of the design-thinking process: Discovery and synthesis.

Where you set the stage for a successful project by clearly defining your objective. In this stage, you will need to compile a list of what you do know and what you don’t know about the challenge at hand.

Discovery & Synthesis

Where you take the time to answer questions about what you don’t know. You can do this by learning about the needs of people in your education community impacted by your solution.


Where you brainstorm a wide variety of solutions to meet your education community’s needs and then prioritize the most promising solutions.

Assessment & Refinement

Where you get feedback from your education community about the solutions you’ve developed and make iterative changes to create an even more effective solution.

In this phase, you will gather insights into what the people in your community actually need and want. 

In other words, it’s time to bring empathy into the process. 

Gaining the perspective of our education community is critical to ensuring we’re solving for real people’s needs and understanding their behaviors, motivations, and experiences


Without taking the time to discover these insights, we would just be guessing about our community’s wants and needs or assuming that everyone’s needs are the same – and as educators, we are all too aware that no two people, classrooms, schools, or families are exactly the same.

Once we’ve gathered insight from our community, the next step will be compiling and synthesizing everything we’ve heard. This process will help validate, create modifications, or eliminate our hypotheses, and ultimately help guide our efforts in designing a solution.

To apply this process to your educational setting, try following the steps below:

1. Turn your knowledge gaps into a discussion guide

Before you start hosting focus groups with community members, you’ll want to craft a “discussion guide” with a list of questions and conversation topics.

Pro tip: It’s helpful to use your list of knowledge gaps as a starting point for creating this discussion guide. Let what you don’t yet know inspire questions that will help you fill those gaps!

Creating a discussion guide also helps you make efficient use of your time with participants (the last thing anyone you want to do is waste another person’s time by getting off-topic!).

You’ll also want to think through how to tailor questions for each group in your study (e.g., teachers, students) or whether there are specific questions you can skip altogether for any given group. This step will help ensure that you’re only spending time on the most relevant topic and targeting the conversation in a way that will provide you with useful knowledge.

Tips for creating a discussion guide
  • Ask open-ended questions that will give you much richer insights than questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” 
  • As much as possible, write your questions in an unbiased way. Even if there is a specific approach you feel is hands-down the best way to address your problem, try to keep questions about this approach neutral in how they’re framed.
  •  Keep an open mind as you listen to participant responses.
Example in action: Crafting questions by group

Building off the example used throughout the first article in this series, our research team recently re-evaluated its future learning solutions to ensure they were still relevant and impactful in a pandemic-affected world. 

Using the knowledge gaps we discovered in the immersion phase, we drafted a discussion guide for each group of participants in the education community. In our case, these groups included administrators, teachers, students, and parents. 

Next up, we organized our questions based on four key categories and tailored the questions to the role/responsibilities each member plays in the community. One of these categories focused on learning management systems (LMSs) and curriculum content. 

For this category, we asked teachers questions such as:

  • Do you feel you have adequate content to deliver to your students remotely?
  • What techniques are working to make the outside content you use personalized to your needs?

By contrast, questions for students included:

  • How do you feel about the classes your school is delivering for remote/hybrid classes?
  • Is the content you’re learning in your remote/hybrid classes created directly by your teachers or coming from other sources (like videos)? Which do you prefer, and why?

Now that we’d created our discussion guides, it was time to schedule interviews!

Apply this step: Prioritize the most relevant questions

As you prepare to have conversations with people in your education community, remember that you don’t need to ask every question raised by your hypotheses to every person in the community. 

Pre-plan your conversations with a discussion guide so that you’re prepared to ask the most relevant questions within the allotted time. 

2. Conduct primary research sessions

Once your discussion guide(s) are ready, it’s time to start talking to people. The type of research you’ll be doing here is “primary” research in other words, collecting information directly from the source.

This stands in contrast to “secondary” research, which involves gathering and summarizing information that someone else has collected (such as when you search for information on Google!). 

There are multiple ways you can approach primary research. Traditionally, this research is conducted live and in-person either through interviews or by going directly to where participants are to observe them in their natural environment – such as teaching in the classroom. These sessions can be done one-on-one or with a small group of participants.

However, with the proliferation of virtual conferencing tools and growing familiarity with remote meetings, holding these research sessions in a remote environment has become an excellent alternative to in-person sessions. This is especially true when pulling in participants from a large geographic area. 

Tips for running a primary research session

Designate a conversation facilitator to guide the group through the prepared questions. This will help keep the conversation flowing and ensure everyone in the group has a chance to voice their opinion. Having a facilitator is also helpful for one-on-one discussions.

Pre-plan how much time you want to dedicate to each section of your discussion guide to make sure you don’t run out of time before being able to address all of your main questions.

  • Consider a one-on-one format if your topic of conversation is more personal or sensitive in nature, or if you need more in-depth or exploratory discussions.
  • Limit the number of researchers who attend. It can be overwhelming to have too many non-participants in the room, whether virtual or in-person. Generally, we choose to have two staff members attend sessions – one person to facilitate and one to take notes.

Honor your participants’ time. Everyone’s busy. Consider scheduling each discussion to last for no more than an hour. 

Record your session, so you can re-watch it if needed and share with other team members. (Also, be sure to let participants know you are recording and why!)

Encourage participants to turn on their cameras if you’re hosting a virtual session. This can lead to a livelier, more humanized conversation.

Example in action: Crafting questions by group

When we reached this stage, our group decided it would be most effective to have small group virtual video conference discussions. This choice made the most sense since this project began during the COVID-19 pandemic, and our target audience spanned a large geographic area (i.e., the state of Michigan!)

Each group included 3-4 members of the education community, and we set up separate discussions with each group type from our community (e.g., groups of administrators, teachers, etc.). 

During these conversations, we heard about a wide variety of needs that exist across Michigan’s educational community, such as:

  • Administrators and teachers told us about the desire for bite-sized pieces of content that teachers could blend into their own curriculum, so that they still feel ownership over what they’re teaching, while having resources to keep their content fresh and engaging for students. 
  • Students and parents told us about their communication needs, particularly their need for an out-of-class resource to quickly get help with questions parents aren’t equipped to answer for their kids. 
  • District leaders shared that they’re trying to incorporate social-emotional learning into the school day. The need for trusting and authentic relationships is at the core of any approach that districts hope will succeed.
Apply this step: Choose your session structure

As you move into your research step, take the time to decide which approach is suitable for the topic you’re working on – one-on-one or group sessions, in-person or remote/online. 

Then, be ready to play an active role in moving the conversation along and keeping all participants on track with the questions you need to get answered.

3. Synthesize what you’ve learned

Last but not least, it’s time to synthesize all the knowledge you gathered during your primary research sessions.

You’ve asked the right questions to the right people, and now you’ve got a bunch of notes. It can be overwhelming to try to sort through all these findings and make sense of them.

Start first by organizing your learnings and grouping similar findings together. As you group these findings, recurring themes will naturally emerge (e.g., common behaviors, pain points, workarounds, etc.). 

It can also be helpful to categorize themes by whether your participants’ underlying needs are functional (i.e., they want something to function differently) or emotional (i.e., they want to feel differently).

Participants usually can’t solve the problem for you or articulate a perfect solution, but they can tell you how they ideally want something to work and how they want to feel as a result. Focus on the descriptive words they use to express their ideals. 

Sometimes, your participants might offer suggestions based on how they work around issues. But it is important not to narrow your focus too soon by jumping to potential solutions prematurely. First, you need to get to the root of the problem. You need to understand it deeply before you’re ready to start designing fixes.

Consider the famous quote often attributed to Henry Ford:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Rather than accepting the first solution offered, Ford kept digging into the human problems lurking beneath the many logistical nightmares of widespread travel by horseback. This laser focus led Ford to deliver the first mass-produced automobile.

After you’ve grouped your findings into themes, you’ll next want to summarize your high-level insights. These insights should allow you to go back to your original hypotheses and see which are valid, which need to be modified, and which need to be eliminated. 

With your research completed and synthesized, you now have the direction you need to start developing and designing solutions to meet your community’s needs.

Example in action:

After completing our primary research, we compiled all the knowledge we had gained. We synthesized themes and noted differences between the different participant groups in our study. 

The result of this synthesis was a list of key insights that validated the four categories we had hypothesized but, more importantly, informed us where the most significant opportunities lay to create relevant and impactful education solutions. 

The four key themes that resulted were:

  • Learning management system strategy & curriculum content – There is a strong desire for a diverse variety of micro-content that can be easily searched, selected, and blended in with teachers’ own content to create a curriculum that meets district standards.
  • Tools to improve effectiveness –  There is a desire for digital assistance that can help teachers field frequently asked questions, and offer personalized guidance to students (without actually “giving them the answers”).
  • Engagement & communication tools – There is a need for an easy and central way to search for, track, and start new classroom-related communications.
  • Personal & professional development toolsChoice, flexibility (such as online availability), and access to relevant professional development content are essential to educators.
Apply this step: Choose your format for synthesizing information

Once you’re ready to start synthesizing information collected during your research, start by getting it into a format that will help you stay organized. 

You could use bulleted lists in a Word document or sticky notes on a classroom wall. There are also many online tools available for group brainstorming. 

One of our go-to tools is Miro, a visual collaboration platform that allows teams to create virtual “sticky notes,” sort and organize these notes, and easily track themes as they start to emerge. 

Better yet, unlike real sticky notes, Miro boards can exist permanently without having to be taken down to make space for the next project.

It can be helpful to move your bullets or sticky notes around, grouping similar ideas together. And remember to dig deeper to focus on the underlying needs or human problems, rather than stopping at the product-level issues that participants may share.

Bringing the pieces together

Congratulations! You’re now ready to apply step two of the design-thinking process – discovery and synthesis –  to your own complex challenge. 

This phase will bring you deep insights into what people in your community want and need from the challenge you’re tackling. 

Taking the time to empathize with your community – to understand the struggles they face each day and the things that make their lives just a little bit easier or more enjoyable – will let you put yourself in their shoes.

Entering the problem from this perspective will allow you to eventually develop solutions that make a meaningful and positive impact on the people you’re trying to serve.

Once you have your synthesized list of key insights, you’re ready to move on to step three of the design-thinking process. Join us in the following article in this series, where we’ll show you how to move beyond your list of insights to start designing solutions.

Could you use a little help? You don’t have to go about this process alone. Our research and consulting team at Michigan Virtual can partner with you on this journey to offer guidance and training as you move toward designing solutions perfect for your community.

Limited Course Capacity

We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.