Bellbird : Sue Bell's blog

Making sense of change and complexity

If your market or category is changing, we can help you make sense of those changes. We do that by uncovering how your customers are making sense of it. We use deep qualitative research methods to do this.

While the ability to 'make sense' of our experiences is one of the most fundamental aspects of human cognition, people are not usually aware of this process. As social scientists, we know that people make sense of things by seeing patterns and interpreting what they see according to multiple factors: their emotions, their expectations, their social and cultural norms and their sense of identity. When the environment changes, people have to make sense of it all over again.  Humans do this naturally and without conscious awareness. That is why we need intensive qualitative research to explore and uncover these factors.

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Tips for remote working and interviewing

Before Covid, we had been remote-working here for over over a decade.  Jane and I are in different Sydney suburbs. Our virtual administrative assistant at the time Heather was based on the NSW North Coast. Suzanne has been living part-time on the NSW South Coast for a few years now. We have used Zoom, Skype, Adobe Connect, Redback Conferencing - and that old technology the mobile phone.  We have not only worked together this way - as an agency, we have conducted probably about a thousand interviews remotely - and several remote presentations as well for international clients.  Lots of experience and our knowledge of semiotics, discourse analysis and sensemaking has given us some useful insights:

Here are the three main things we have learned about remote working and interviewing

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Interviewing as mentoring

While working on our 'Retirement planning' project, Suzanne Burdon and I created a non-linear interview format that allows the person we are interviewing to describe and define in their own words how they were making sense of the world they were experiencing.  This idea is based on the theory of sensemaking. Sensemaking is about how people muddle through, working things out as they go along, to move forward as best they can. It's a theory that rejects the idea that people make decisions in some kind of context-free way.  Sensemaking theory has been applied extensively and productively for several decades in management consulting and information science. I came across it in 2016 and have been writing about and working with sensemaking ideas since then developing a model that suited commercial qualitative research and the kinds of problems for which we receive briefs. 

What sensemaking teaches us about how to interview

Sensemaking teaches us that to expose the assumptions and presumptions of other people we must jettison our own. To do that, we have to jettison the traditional 'topic guide' which in turn means letting go of the traditional role of the interviewer as the person in command of the conversation.

Instead of interrogators with a topic guide, we see our role as mentors, helping the person we are speaking to see the 'mental frame' they are using when they talk and think about this particular issue or problem. How are they making sense of all these different aspects of their life situation, how do they interact, how do they prioritise them, and how in particular do they make sense of the ways in which they might change?

In our retirement example, some people frame retirement as a question of identity - for example thinking of themselves as too young to retire.  Others see retirement as a social problem, trying to manage relationships with an already-retired partner, or with still-working friends.  For some, it has more to do with employment opportunities than with either of these.  

This method of mentoring people towards sensemaking can be used for a wide range of products and services. The more of these mentoring conversations of this kind that we have, the more we are convinced that it is a way to see more clearly exactly how people ‘muddle through’ and work things out (even though that might seem an oxymoron.

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Our contribution to Treasury’s Retirement Income Review

The Treasury Retirement Income Review report is out. Great to see our work cited!


Industry Super Australia commissioned us to conduct a survey to find out how much superannuation retirees and pre-retirees have, as well as how much they owe in debt. One of the significant findings of our survey was that people who retired involuntarily had less money and more debt in retirement. on average.


About half of retirees retire earlier than they expected to because their work opportunities ran out or because of their or someone else’s health problems

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Sensemaking Explained

At Susan Bell Research we've pioneered a new approach to qualitative research that helps us understand human behaviour in a new way. We call it Sensemaking.  Sensemaking is a framework to use in qualitative research.

Sensemaking brings insight into qualitative research

  • To investigate how people navigate between their own personal beliefs and their social relationships.  In Australia, choosing to become a vegetarian is a good example because it is often a very personal choice which potentially affects that person’s relationship with other people.

  • As a way to come grips with who people make decisions in ambiguous or confusing circumstances. In Australia, how people become retirees (often without choosing to) is a great example.

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