Sense-making is about ‘how people make sense of their experiences’.

We use sense-making in qualitative research to explore how people make sense of things.

By drawing on a cohesive framework which includes perception, emotion, cognition and culture, sense-making research goes beyond what we already know from behavioural economics about how our minds work. It also goes beyond much customer journey research by bringing the underlying ‘experience’ to the fore.

We believe that sense-making is one of the most useful new ideas in market and social researchers.

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. It is also a great explanation of why humans have a confirmation bias:

"People are motivated to hold onto their beliefs because they feel good or help them fit into the sense they have made of the world" 1

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?'

A sense-making example

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?'

Sense-making is about situations not decisions

Typically in research, this would have been described as 'a decision' and assumed to have been influenced by existing attitudes and values. Behavioural Economists may also have framed this as a decision, using as explanatory factors biases like loss aversion and anchoring.  From a sense-making perspective, this is not a decision. It's a situation in which someone figured out what to do. Seeing this scenario as a 'decision' ignores all of the mental to-ing and fro-ing, the self-talk, the uncertainty, and it doesn't allow for the fact that some situational factors - how busy the street is perhaps - will have had more influence on the behaviour than others. Sense-making explains this.

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. 

Our insight has been to use the stories to people tell themselves as our 'way in' to understanding their world.

We use story-based qualitative research to understand how consumers and customers 'make sense' of products and services.

We base our work on a sense-making framework

This is the framework.



Our sense-making framework reflects the process of perception and cognition that people go through when they buy products and use services.

  • It starts because people have a drive to make sense. 
  • People make sense of things by paying attention to the sensory stimuli - the 'signs'around them, and process other subconsciously.
  • What people expect influences ('frames') how they interpret these sensory signs.
  • Expectations are shaped by culture. How people then act depends partly on social norms. When in doubt, we copy others.
  • How people then act depends partly on whether this experience resonates with their ideal or ought self, or empowers them with a sense of agency.

Ultimately, understanding and meaning are all about emotions how people feel about their experience.

How sense-making research is different

We have broken away from the current research preoccupation with 'decisions' because so much of the time people don't actually make decisions. They 'figure things out', 'jump at the chance', and 'get things done'.  So, when our client asks 'how and why do people buy this kind of insurance?' our insight into sense-making tells us that we need to find out 'how do people make sense of this insurance category?'  Sense-making allows us to build into our research model the real things that people do, for example 

      • Real people get curious about things.

      • Real people do things because they are bored. 

      • Real people get around to doing things.

Diagnosing why people do what they do

Sense-making is positive in its outlook. It says that in our complex world, people get things done. While sense-making is consistent with or part of  Behavioural Economics (B.E), at Susan Bell Research we are uncomfortable with how much of the current B.E discourse is about how people get things wrong. In contrast, we think that people only get things wrong some of the time, so a research method that assumes that people get things wrong all of the time is flawed. If we are not careful with how we use the insights from B.E.  we will start to reduce people to a list of biases, ignore their subjective experience and stop thinking about them 'as people' - there is more to B.E. than this.

In contrast to the 'biases' approach, sense-making gives us a diagnostic tool to explain why people acted in a certain way. Using the framework above, we identify the cues the person paid attention to, how they framed the problem, how influenced they were by social and cultural values, how this fitted in with their sense of self, and the emotions that were generated.

Sense-making focuses on the uncertainty in customer journeys, not just the 'pain'

People engage in sense-making when the situations they are in are ambiguous, and/or different from what they expected. When we look at customer experience journeys, we see that some experiences are characterised by 'moments of uncertainty' than they are of 'pain', which is the usual customer journey terminology. What matters to us as sense-maker researchers is how the customer resolves that uncertainty, and the cost to customer or organisation that that entails. Note that a focus on uncertainty is also a key preoccupation of B.E.

For more information see: how we do sense-making research

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

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

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