When to use sensemaking

Sensemaking gives clients qualitative insight into why people make the decisions they make.  It is most useful for:

  • Difficult or life-changing decisions
  • Decisions that take time
  • Decisions that people seem to get wrong

As a research agency, we are going out on a limb here, challenging the research industry to stop pretending that people make decisions in some kind of choice-modelling kind of way. Real people lead busy lives, getting things done (sometimes well and sometimes badly) and then moving on to the next thing. They 'wade in' to situations and then figure out whether that was a good idea or not afterwards. That is what sensemaking is.

You know that people in the real world don't evaluate products and services attribute by attribute don't you?  You know that people are not simply 'nudged' into behaving a certain way most of the time.

To explain and use sensemaking in our research, we developed a model. It is is based on a broad range of social science theories and has been used by others in such diverse fields as information science, anthropology, and cognitive psychology.  This is our model.  We can explain it when you This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



To understand why people do something, researchers and clients need to change the frame we use to understand how people behave. Researchers who assume that people decide rationally, examining issues attribute by attribute, are blind to behaviour that sees the opposite occurring. Researchers who frame the problem they are researching as nudges and biases will see what they except to see. Seeing things from a sensemaking perspective gives us a new frame to see the problem with.

Sensemaking is particularly useful for these kinds of decisions:

  • Life-changing decisions. The decision to have a baby for example is not the same as a decision to buy breakfast cereal because deciding to have a baby is a life-changing decision. To understand why people decide to have children or not, we ask how did this couple or this person make sense of the world in which they were living? Did they think it all through beforehand, or did they just 'wade' in? Was this more of a response to social pressure than an actual decision?
  • Complex decisions. Complex decisions need input from lots of different people. All complex decisions are unique and should not be researched according to the same formula. Sensemakers ask: how did these people make sense of the problem they were solving and work out what to do? When researching these kinds of decisions, we must first identify what kind of decision this is and ask how long did it take? Who were the influencers and when do they influence? What effect did cultural, community, and personal values have? 

Researchers won't find the 'why?' if they rely on a 'one size fits all' method like neuroscience or nudges.

Tags: Qualitative Research , sense-making, Decision Making

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