Making sense of decision-making

Find out how people really make decisions

If you are looking for an intelligent research approach to understanding how people really make decisions - such as how to invest, what product to buy or which service to use -  you have come to the right place. Here are some of the things we know about how people make decisions that you will probably not see anywhere else:

  • All complex decisions are unique.  If it takes someone a long time to think through whether a certain product or service is right for them or their business, we researchers need to ensure that our research methods take this into account.

  • When making difficult decisions, people do not rank order list of attributes in their head, or make choices about attributes they have never thought about before.

  • People make decisions in the moment drawing on their cultural, community, and personal values.

Sense-making: how people make decisions in ambiguous situations

At Susan Bell Research, we have particular expertise in how people make decisions in complex of ambiguous situations. These could be business decisions or perhaps ongoing decisions like planning for retirement, or the decisions to buy complex products like financial services, or any kind of decision made in a complex market or industry. To research these kinds of decisions, we have developed an innovative qualitative research method called sense-making

  • Sense-making is about ‘how people make sense of things’. 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. 
  • 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.
  • Each of us has a 'drive to make sense'. 

Sensemaking is based on well-established theories in cognitive and social psychology. It and has been used in information science and applied behavioural economics. In fact, one way to think of sensemkaing.

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 investment 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

This is insightful in-depth research which puts the person at the centre of the research process.

 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:




To find out how sensemaking or our other ideas about complex decisions can be useful to you, email Sue.

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

Tags: Behavioural Economics, Ethnography, customer experience, sense-making, Information design, Applied Behavioural Economics

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