We use a sense-making framework for our communications and customer experience research.  It helps us see customer experiences from the customers' perspective. Not just the what people do, but the why.



Our use of this framework helps our clients understand their customers more clearly and with much more empathy. The insight behind it is that people have a natural drive to make things make sense.

Sense-making is ethnographic

Sense-making is ethnographic partly because the methods we use combine observation and long interviews but also because we set out to explore how people's behaviour fits into their world as they are experiencing at that moment.

Sense-making and Behavioural Insights

Our sense-making framework will be particularly useful to clients who want to incorporate Behavioural Insights into their customer experience and communications research, and who also want to understand their customers 'as people'.

Research using the sense-making framework focuses on what the customer sees and thinks as well as what he or she does. It is about who they are and how they feel about themselves in this particular context, and how these emotions drive the behaviour. When using services or buying products, people often feel confused and uncertain, for example. Not surprisingly then, we believe that talking to people about their experiences is as valuable as observing them. We talk to them about their experiences as they happen, and afterwards. How the customer looks back on their experiences in a holistic sense is one of the major predictors of repeat purchase or use.

Sense-making also has a natural fit with Information Design

What to use sense-making for

  • Customer journey or customer experience research when you want to know why people do what they do, not just what they do.

  • When you want to know why people do what they do, on top of the behavioural insights you already have about the biases and heuristics that people are prone to.

  • For information campaigns and marketing collateral, to make sure your communications make sense.

Our sense-making framework

Our sense-making framework reflects the process of perception and cognition that people go through when they buy products and use services.  It adds to what we already know from behavioural economics about how our minds work.

  1. It starts with a drive to make sense.
  2. People make sense of things by paying attention to the sensory stimuli - the 'signs'- around them. 
  3. What people expect influences ('frames') how they interpret these sensory signs.
  4. How people then act depends partly on social norms. When in doubt, we copy others.
  5. How people then act depends partly on whether this experience resonates with their ideal self, or empowers them with a sense of agency.
  6. Ultimately, understanding and meaning are all about emotions - how people feel about their experience.

Our sense-making research draws on our extensive experience in qualitative and quantitative research and our backgrounds in marketing, the arts, and the social sciences.

How sense-making differs from other customer journey research

  1. We talk to people in depth about their experiences and the expectations that shaped them.
  2. We think about their experience holistically
  3. Many researchers and marketers speak about customer experiences in terms of 'pain points' and 'moments that 'matter'. For us though, it is not enough to describe experiences in just those terms. When we look at customer experiences from a sense-making perspective, we bring two additional insights. Some customer experiences are more often characterised by 'moments of uncertainty' than they are of 'pain'. 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.

What to use this for

  • Understanding retail shopping behaviour
  • Prototype testing for products
  • Working out how to improve complex service experiences
  • Testing communications - such as marketing collateral, fact sheets, instructions and labeling
  • and more

Why we did this

Because we are more interested in how people making sense of things, than how they do things wrong.

We realised that there was a huge gap in how researchers understood how people experience products and services. The trend in the industry has been one of 'choosing sides'; some researchers focus exclusively on cognitive biases, others on herding instincts, others on personal values to explain behaviour. Instead, sense-making combines and integrates all of these - and more - from the perspective of the individual. We 'make sense' of people's experiences by taking into account: their sense of self, their social networks, their cognitive biases, as well as system 1 and 2, and the emotional drive to 'make sense of things'.

We built all of these into a 'sense-making framework' which we now use in all our our research about products, services or experiences. The framework is based on the work of Karl Weick.  It reflects the idea that our task as researchers is to work out what sense consumers make of their experiences, why, and how that could be changed if necessary.

Thinking from a sense-making perspective helps us show our clients how to figure out what to do to make it easier for users, customers or stakeholders to understand instructions, evaluate concepts, use services effectively, and benefit from products and brands. 

We use a sense-making framework in projects like these

    • Under the heading 'Sense', we help organisations communicate clearly.
    • Under the heading 'Senses', we help organisations develop sensory products and services.
    • Under the heading 'Sensibilities', we help organisations understand the emotions of their customers and stakeholders, with a special focus on difficult and challenging situations or vulnerable people.

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

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