Sensemaking: where deep qualitative insights come from

When you learn to think about people as sensemakers, rather than as consumers, or as respondents, you will gain much greater insight.  This way of thinking about people is based on the insight that people have an innate drive to make sense.

Sensemaking is a generous and innovative way to think about people.

When we adopted sensemaking as a core qualitative research method we stopped designing the typical 'question and answer' format of qualitative research interview. Instead, we see the researcher act as a kind of mentor, helping the person they are speaking to introspect and bring their memories and emotions to the conversation.

How to have a sensemaking conversation

To do this, we created a unique non-linear conversation format that allows the person we are talking to to describe and define in their own words the world that they are experiencing and how they navigate it.

  1. We ask people to tell their story in their own way. This is about their lived experience. People have a drive to share their experiences. How they tell their stories reveals the cognitive frames they are using to make sense of the world, and their language.

  2. We focus on actual behaviour, in context.  As well as the behaviour itself we set out to learn what preceded the behaviour, including all of the false starts, the changes of mind, and the uncertainties.

  3. Then we focus on what happens afterwards, particularly the stories that people tell about what happened. We listen carefully to how they tell the story - what they say, how they say it, what they emphasise and what they do not mention.

  4. We use sophisticated questioning and projective and enabling techniques to go behind and beyond the story we have been told.

We believe in the power of talk

Observing behaviour on its own is not enough. We need to learn about the false starts and changes of mind that could occur over months or years. As researchers we are deeply respectful of how much we all learn from each other through talk. Talk is one of the defining characteristics of being human. Let's not ignore it. 

How to design a sensemaking conversation

We typically use one-on-one interviews, but other methods also work, as long as the format gives the person you are talking to the freedom and the resources to tell their story. 

Sample sizes vary with the project, and the number of segments. Samples of ten or fifteen are not uncommon.

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Tags: sense-making, Thinking frameworks, social science, Advanced qualitative research