We call ourselves 'sense-makers' as well as 'researchers'. A sense-maker is a researcher who gains insight into behaviour by understanding how people make sense of their experiences.

As sense-makers, we are interested in how people figure things out, how they have a drive to make sense, how they get things done.

Where did this sense-making idea come from?

Most of the projects that we work on as researchers are about 'making sense'. That is the underlying idea behind all of these questions:

  • 'Do our letters make sense to our customers?'
  • 'How can we make our customer service experience better for customers?'
  • 'How do people figure out what insurance to buy?'     

However when we looked around, we found nothing in the market research 'discourse' (the things market researchers talk about) that mentioned 'making sense' at all.  There is a lot about 'decisions' and a lot about 'biases', but nothing about making sense. So we researched the literature and made our own - as shown in our SENSE model here:



The insight behind it is that people have a natural drive to make things make sense. To make sense of situations, people take the signs and cues in the environment, that they are aware of or not, and integrate them into a mental model based on their experience, and their sense of their ideal self. If the signs and cues jar with their mental model, they adjust that mental model. For example, if we see other people behaving differently from the way our mental model would predict, we change how we make sense of the situation.

As sense-making researchers, we explore what kind of mental rethinking people have to do to make sense of things.

Sense-making focuses on 'situations' not 'decisions'

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.

Getting things done vs getting things wrong

Sense-making is positive in its outlook. It says in our complex world, people get things done. In contrast, Behavioural Economics is all about how people get things wrong. 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. Behavioural Economics reduces people to a list of biases, and ignores people's subjective experience as somehow irrelevant.

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

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 an additional insight. 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.

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.

  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. Expectations are shaped by culture.
  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.

What to use this for

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

 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, Information design

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