A new way to understand decision-making

How people make sense of ambiguous situations.

Have you tried to understand your market from a 'decision' perspective, but have been disappointed? Are you marketing - or perhaps regulating - a product or service that is complex?

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Sense-making is about ‘how people make sense of things’. We use it in qualitative research. We believe that much of the time people 'wade into situations' rather than actually 'make a decision'.  When in that situation, they make sense of it as best they can. Our sensemaking approach - while innovative in market and social research - is based on well established theories in cognitive and social psychology and has been used in information science and behavioural economics.

What is sense-making?

Sense-making is an active, ongoing process in which the person tries to figure out what to do, to find meaning in the situation and basically do their best under the circumstances. It comes into its own in ambiguous or difficult situations.

All of us has a 'drive to make sense'.  At Susan Bell Research, we feel that this very normal, very familiar feeling had somehow been missed by market and social researchers. When clients ask us to research 'why do our customers do XYZ?' or 'How can we make this service more efficient?', we envisage it as a sense-making problem. The research question becomes: 'how are people figuring out what product to buy?' or 'how are they working out how to use our service?', 'what does this product mean to this user?' The answer might be: Real people get curious about things. Real people do things because they are bored, or 'jump at the chance'. Real people get around to doing things. Once we understand this, we know how to communicate to them.

Sense-making is about situations not decisions

Take charity donation. Many people feel conflicted about giving to charity. Seeing a charity collector on the street can trigger a silent mental struggle, which starts at the point the person spots the collector and continues as he or she scans the environment, perhaps wondering whether to cross the road to avoid the situation, perhaps mentally rehearsing what to say if the collector makes an approach. By the time the two people meet the person may have changed his or her mind several times about what to do or say. It's about how the person feel about themselves in that place at that time , as in 'if I donate, am I being taken for a ride?

How we research sense-making

As sense-making researchers, we explore what kind of mental rethinking people have to do to make sense of things. One of the great insights about sense-making is that people tell themselves stories to explain what is happening to them, or find the meaning in what just happened. We base our work on a sense-making framework:



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1. George Lowenstein, Professor or Psychology and Economics, Carnegie Mellon University

Tags: Ethnography, customer experience, sense-making, Information design

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