Sensemaking - for qualitative research interviewing

Sensemaking is the process that people instinctively use when in complex and difficult situations to make sense of what is happening and drive what they do.

We use Sensemaking in two ways:

  1. As a qualitative research interview technique - described below
  2. To analyse and interpret qualitative data - for more on this check out the article here.

Sensemaking as a qualitative research interview technique

Our sensemaking conversations give the people we speak to the opportunity to think by talking

We have developed an innovative research technique to understand how research participants 'make sense of' complex situations or difficult dilemmas, which is often to muddle through or just get by. Examples include life-stage transitions like becoming a parent or retirement; social beliefs like vegetarianism; and products and services that are difficult to use - financial services for example.  Complex situations trigger us to automatically try to make sense of them. When make sense of them by doing something, by reflecting on who we are, and by talking. 

As researchers, our aim is to see the world from the other person's perspective. To do that the researcher must set aside his or her own framework of assumptions and presumptions. We then guide the interviewee to consider the multiple perspectives that may have created the 'frame' through which they are seeing this particular issue or problem. As such, this method relies on the expert use of advanced qualitative research techniques such as narratives and projective techniques.

Key features:

It is different from 'decision-making' research

Conventional decision-making research asks people about the 'decisions' they have made - about the product or brand they chose and what criteria they used to make their decision. This research typically

In confusing and new environments, the decisions that people make in life are not like that. We often find for example, that people 'wade into' situations and then need to make sense of what is happening around them before they can do anything. It is the doing of it that makes them think about it. Naturally and without intending to do so, people assign meaning to their experiences. It's an active, adaptive process often involving how they feel about themselves in that moment.

As a research agency, we are going out on a limb here, challenging the research industry to stop pretending that people make decisions in some kind of linear individualistic choice-modelling kind of way. 

Use Sensemaking instead of 'attitudinal research'

Traditionally, researchers have tried to reach inside people's heads, to see the 'attitudes' or 'motives'  which they presume to be the forces that guide behaviour. The problem is that these attitudes and motives are invisible to the human eye, and very difficult to correlate with any kind of behaviour.

Sensemaking research is a challenge to behavioural economics

Sensemaking projects are about how people actually behave in the real world not how they behave in experiments - which is where most of the behavioural economics theories originate. Sensemaking projects are non-judgmental. We don't say that people are flawed in their thinking. We say that people think the way they do to get things done in the best possible way they can at the time. Our job is to find out how they think.

CASE STUDY: Sensemaking explains the vegetarian experience perfectly

Take vegetarianism as an example. The vegetarian landscape is evolving rapidly, with the advent of plant-based foods. Becoming a vegetarian was always a big decision but now it has become more complicated. Our research based on sensemaking shows that becoming a vegetarian is not just a choice between different food products; it's a manifestation of someone's self-identity at a stage in their life. The decision to stop eating meat is only one part of it - vegetarians, pescatarians, flexitarians and others review and revise their diet on an alomost daily basis as they 'make sense of' how to balance their diet, their social beliefs and their social relationships. 

Three facts about sensemaking research

  1. Sensemaking projects are interview-based projects. 

  2. They are ethnographic in that they seek to understand the person's world in situ

  3. They are based on story-telling. When people want to make sense of what they are doing or bring sense to what just happened to them, they tell a story about it. So, we gain insight into how people make sense of their experiences by listening to how they talk about the actions they took.

This is fresh thinking. You will not find this kind of research anywhere else. We are always happy to challenge existing ways of doing things.


Tags: Experiences, sense-making, Decision Making, Naturalistic decision making, People-centred research, Vegetarian, Wicked problems