Solving complex problems with sense-making

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around it”  

-  Harper Lee

Sense-making is a new way to think about how to research complex problems. It does that by focussing on how people ‘make sense of’ concepts, communications and marketing offers of all kinds.





More than observation

As we all know, researchers can gain great insight from observing people’s behaviour in context. What we don’t know is what is going on people’s heads. Now you might think that this is why we need neuroscience, but that is not what I am getting at. What I am talking about is how people make sense of their experiences at the time. Only the person whose head it is can tell you that!

This is something we have been interested in from some time. In 2004, working as Collective Intelligence, Suzanne, Jane , Jo Watts and I presented a paper at the AMSRS Conference called ‘Valuing the visceral: the increasing importance of the rapid-affective response in assessing consumer behaviour.’*

Since then, there has been interesting work done in psychology and information science to take the idea much further.

We probably all recognise these 'making sense moments'

  • Discovering a new product or service and trying to figure out where it would fit in our lives
  • Visiting a store or website for the first time and trying to make sense of what is on offer
  • Using something like a registration process and trying to figure out what to do next
  • Trying to make sense of the instructions for an unfamiliar service or device.

The drive to make sense

The most important point about sense-making is that people seem to have a sense-making drive. We instinctively want things to make sense, and can make that happen by ignoring facts and features which do not fit with our original expectations.

  • Not a blank slate. When we see a concept or product for the first time, we do not do so with a 'blank state'. Instead we bring all sorts of experiences and expectations to it which influence our reaction.
  • Amplifying cues.  We then focus on certain cues in the environment - which could be words, pictures, sensory qualities, or symbols of some kind - and automatically amplify the importance of some of them.
  •  Putting all that together. Then we put all that together so it ‘makes sense’.   Our job as researchers to find out whether it made sense in a way that maximises opportunities for the brand, product or service, and if not, the reason for that so they can be fixed.

When is sense-making useful in research?

Sense-making is useful for clients and researchers who are interested in how people make sense of:

  • ·         Communications
  • ·         Concepts
  • ·         Products, and
  • ·         Service experiences.

Identifying experience gaps

Why would we be interested in how people make sense of their experiences? Answer: to identify and resolve experience gaps:

  • ·         A gap between people’s experience and their expectation, and / or
  • ·         A gap between the experience the organisation intended and the one the person experienced.

Sense-making comes into its own for complex and difficult problems.

If you would like us to help you use sense-making for greater insight contact Sue.

 *A later version of the paper was published in the International Journal of Market Research

Tags: Behavioural Economics, Market Research, Sensory research, Making sense, Senses, sense-making

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