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Sensemaking 1


Here’s an important question for all of us: How do you make sense of something that’s big and complicated?  Say… something like why your users aren’t passionate about your product?

For the past several years I’ve been thinking a great deal about sensemaking—that is, the processes people go through when trying to “make sense” of a body of knowledge.

Think about it—sensemaking is what you do when you’re trying to organize your taxes, or when you want to understand what’s going on in the Middle East.  It’s what you do to figure out why your software just doesn’t seem to have the right zing for the customers. And it’s what you do when trying to wrap your mind around that great new idea for a startup. It’s figuring out how and why things make sense… or don’t.

What’s always struck me about sensemaking behavior is this: People just don’t seem to be all that good at it. They take notes on the topic, then never go over them, or lose them in the shuffle of life. People seem to rarely understand that sensemaking is a skill like language. You can be good or bad at it, and the level of skill makes a big difference.

So I’ve made this a central part of my research career: WHAT do people do when they’re trying to make sense of the world? And, just as importantly, WHY are people so bad at it? A great deal of my career (at PARC, Apple, IBM and now at Google) has been a long study of these sensemaking behaviors.

Let’s be more precise: If you’re trying to understand a fairly hefty topic… what is it that you do? How do you collect information, organize it and figure out what’s important (and what’s not)?

I know what I do (and I’ll tell you below)… but pause and think about this for a second. What do you do?

(I’ll wait.)

Okay. What’s the answer? When I ask people this question, I get two really interesting responses.

1. “I don’t know, I just sort of do it…” This is a fine answer. It tells me that sensemaking is a skill that you’ve practiced so much that it’s become automatic…. OR… it’s a skill you never practice. In either case, this is a better reply than someone who starts rambling long about what they do, but it’s clear that what they’re saying is just a confabulation (a nice word meaning “they’re making it up”).

2. I collect a bunch of information, then organize it, then I get the answer. This is also a fine answer. At least you’re aware of the “collection phase” and some basic collection organizational process. But that last step is the killer—how do you just “get the answer”?

Ahh.. there’s the magic! How DO you know what to do to get the answer?

In 1993 I wrote a paper with the somewhat forbidding title “The cost structure of sensemaking,” which basically points out that people take into account all kinds of factors when deciding what to do when making sense. They worry about how long it will take, how many errors will happen during the process and how much the whole process will cost. Interestingly, many of these “costs” are figured intuitively, and often incorrectly, leading people to do all kinds of strange things.

Which is why I think understanding how people “make sense” of their world is so fascinating. This is really why I went to Google—because there’s a ton of data there about what people do when trying to understand their world.

What do I do? Well, I’ll tell you.. I collect a ton of information, then organize it, then I map it to the task I’m trying to do. Then I repeat. The iteration is important because I almost never get the right information on the first pass, or I don’t know how to organize it, or I don’t know how to use it to get the task accomplished it once it’s all organized. (I’ll go into details in my next posting on Sensemaking in a day or two.)

I know CPU readers are a really interesting bunch.  So a question for everyone: What do you do when you do sensemaking? Can you illustrate with an example? I’ll summarize the most interesting responses in another post a week from today.



Posted by Dan Russell on January 21, 2007 | Permalink


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Dan Russell is filling in for Kathy Sierra on Creating Passionate Users. He has written this article starting a discussion about how people approach the process of making sense out of something. Sensemaking 1 As a systems analyst, or whatever I am, I hav [Read More]

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Tracked on Jan 22, 2007 6:23:08 PM


I ask myself a lot of questions throughout the process. I start by asking myself what I'm trying to learn and why- the why usually narrows down the task and defines it more clearly. Then I ask myself a lot of questions about the learning process itself: how can I learn that, what can I read, who can I ask.... I make it a habit to ask myself if I've hit a roadblock. I'm human, so if I'm trying to learn something difficult then there will probably be times when the answer is yes. If I didn't ask myself this frequently, I might not even notice, but the usual symptoms include searching for more Sudoku puzzles online. If I'm stuck, I ask myself why. Is it something I need to figure out before I can proceed? Or can I come back at it sideways after I learn some other aspect of the topic?

This is turning into a long comment, so here's the short answer: I ask myself a lot of questions, both about what I'm trying to learn and, equally importantly, about how my learning process is going. The answers to those questions guide the rest of my process.

Posted by: Dave | Jan 21, 2007 9:16:00 AM

My sense making seems to be question-driven. I start with some large question and then decompose it into smaller, more focussed, questions or expand the question into related questions. I then look for information to answer the similar questions and combine the answers into a somewhat coherent mental model by looking for harmony and contradictions between the answers. I then look for ways to resolve the apparent contradictions (usually this leads to more questions) and continue to refine the model. Depending on the type of question, it's important for me to /do/ something to experience the answers I'm getting. I learn better by internalizing the information and it helps to validate my answers. A couple of techniques that are useful to me are to understand the variety of cognitive "bugs" that can occur when building a mental model (fallacies, for example) and to identify the most productive questions for my study. For example, I'd prefer to ask "how can I make my users more passionate about my product" than "why are users not passionate about my product". It's the first answer I really want although I may find the answer to the second question along the way.

Posted by: Steve | Jan 21, 2007 9:20:42 AM

I normally do an 20/80 research programme. There is a saying that it takes 80% of the effort to do the last 20% of the task. The corollary for me is that I can learn 80% of something with only 20% of the effort.

I usually decides that I need to make sense of some topic/area before I actually need it. Then, I will go into a crunch mode and try to consume as much information about it as possible in a short time.

Once the crunch is over, I let the topic go from my primary focus, but keep it my background. This has two benefits: the knowledge acquired connects over time with other things I know and I collect additional information about the topic almost incidentally through general information exposure.

When I actually need to use the information, I already have acquired some foundation, roughly know the problem area and have observed enough patterns to connect theory with practice. Then, I only need to spend the time on a refresher and on in-depth learning of specific points I need for the task at hand.

By spending a chunk of time earlier when I had free moments, I saved myself a lot of effort during time-sensitive decision time later. It also allows me to pre-learn several topics at leisure for the price of learning one in a rush. And the more one knows already, the easier it is to learn more, so the effects are cumulative.

For example, if I wanted to learn about ISBNs, I would do lots of reading on ISBNs, differences betweeen 10 and 13 digits ISBNs, country and publication type encoding, etc. Then, when I deal with books (or shop on Amazon), I would casually look at ISBNs and notice additional patterns. Then, when I decide to (say) self-publish a book, I know whether I need to bother with ISBN, what kind of ISBN I should have and what special topics I need to pay special attention to.

The additional advantage is that this technique allows me to be a generalist and investigate a lot of things that may come useful later. In fact, this method really helped my career several times already.

It does require one to be very curious about things. Not wasting time on watching TV helps as well.

Posted by: Alexandre Rafalovitch | Jan 21, 2007 9:43:33 AM

as the commenters before me have mentioned, i too find questioning to be essential.

i also try to look for a duality. for instance, when making sense of playing an instrument, i think of the lead (the sequence of notes/chord) and the rhythm (the beat the lead goes to). in business i think of creating value and creating profit (i.e. search engines create value by helping people find info; they create profit by charging businesses to help them find the people they're looking for). the duality is always connected, i.e. one needs the other to survive, even if they are in seeming opposition. from a taoist perspective you might say it is about looking for the yin and yang (although i dont need for the parallels to be exact).

Posted by: kid mercury | Jan 21, 2007 9:48:56 AM

For me, sense-making is primarily about gathering

1. Gather information.
2. Look for patterns in the information.Try to find a general rule that encompasses all (or at least most) of the data. This often entails drawing diagrams or organising the information into tables.
3. Collect more information and see if it fits my theories.
4. Look for ways to simplify my theories.

For example, I've been studying the Irish language for some time. Like any language, it has grammar rules and lots of exceptions. During my first few years of study, I created a lot of tables that summarised the rules that I had learned, and ignored some of the exceptions that were just to confusing to deal with at the time. As I continue to study, much of what I've learned has become second-nature, so I keep simplifying my grammar charts, discarding some of the information that now seems "obvious", and incorporating some of the exceptions that were too intimidating before.

When I can summarise my knowledge of something in a table that's simple enough to picture in my mind, then I feel I'm sort of "in command" of that subject.

Posted by: Muddle-headed Wombat | Jan 21, 2007 9:53:47 AM

I agree with what Steve said about asking the right questions and how you phrase them being important.

I don't have a whole "process" to outline here but just wanted to mention that it's important to delegate some of the work to the subconscious. Carefully ask yourself the right questions first, in a focused and almost "prayer-like" way, then let the rest of your brain chew on them for a while ("sleep on it" is the familiar expression). When you come back to it later, you will be a lot more effective at zeroing in on what you're looking for.

Posted by: Keith Handy | Jan 21, 2007 9:54:34 AM

Oops! That first sentence was supposed to say:

"For me, sense-making is primarily about gathering information, looking for patterns, and summarising."

Posted by: Muddle-headed Wombat | Jan 21, 2007 9:55:39 AM

It must start with the user, of course. Each user defines the elements or features that are important to them and you must take them all into consideration. I'm a math and bullet guy... I try to break each problem down to its lowest common denominators... my bullets (as in bullet poinets), and then gain feedback on each in order to figure out what needs correction.

If it's a form, for instance... it could be the page style, the font, the tab order, the size of the fields, the layout, the number of fields, the field validation, etc. It's important to review each of these to identify where the pain points are (and where the pleasure ones are as well). Sometimes it's a single item, sometimes a combination.

Posted by: Doug Karr | Jan 21, 2007 10:23:13 AM

Like many of the other commenters, I collect information. Rather than finding consensus, I also try to find conflicts. Conflicts are were people try to defend their position and often put a lot of effort into clear explanations. You end up reconciling the conflicts (or accepting them) but it helps you see a wider range of the information. Like global warming (or, to use your example, the Middle East) it's not always cut and dry.

A major part of what I do when I make sense of things is to teach them. I try to write about something on my blog, teach it to a colleague, or just have conversations about the topic. Absorbing information tends to be very passive for me... when I'm actively participating I find I approach information from another angle.

Posted by: Chas Grundy | Jan 21, 2007 10:34:12 AM

I jump to Google to see who has made sense of the subject. I avoid commerce sites and bookmark useful resources. Then I narrow it down to sites that use simple and direct language, and it all starts to make sense.

Posted by: Jennifer Apple | Jan 21, 2007 10:43:36 AM

A great deal of my sensemaking involves checking in with people or sources I trust from previous attempts to make sense. I think I must employ a method similar to PageRank, hunting for sources that have produced good sense in the past, or sources connected to sources I trust.

I also love metaphors, thought experiments, and black & white hypotheticals. I immediately begin building connections to things I already think make sense. I do a lot of what ifs to test ideas and see if I've truly made sense. Then I stretch things to either end of the possibility spectrum and see if the sense I've made gets broken.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Posted by: Jon | Jan 21, 2007 10:44:22 AM

I gather info from many sources, and filter it. Filtering is comprised of weighing the authenticity, and importance to a piece of evidence. Then I arrange. Then I'll comment to myself. And I'll find more sources that share my initial point of view, and go find more that disagree. My initial point of view is essentially a hypothesis, and I allow it to be affirmed or stuck down.

I use sense-making in two "worlds". One is theological (I'm an avid Bible student). The second is political/social at work (I'm an avid Programmer).

Posted by: JohnO | Jan 21, 2007 10:45:01 AM

Depending on the subject to be learned, I'll read books, look for tutorials (in book form and online) and do them, use the knowledge in some real work, and find mailing lists where people post their questions and problems and read the answers they get.

When I get to the point where I can answer those questions, and write tutorials, then I'm pretty sure I've mastered the subject.

For a subject that isn't in book form, it's collecting information, tracking down cause-and-effect. Looking for people who've had the same or similar problems, and seeing what their solutions were.

Posted by: keith ray | Jan 21, 2007 11:02:51 AM

I gather info, think about it, come to a conclusion, then explain it to my wife. She's clever but from a different profession to me - if I can explain my reasoning to her and she thinks it makes sense then I know I'm getting close.

Interesting post, btw. Thanks

Posted by: Clarke Ching | Jan 21, 2007 11:19:42 AM

Great thread and great comments. Clearly you should get all the information you can and then cut it down to size. When doing that, I particularly like the notion of helicopter vision. It's the process of standing back and looking at the totality with half-closed eyes. What's the big picture here? I find this a most powerful way of trying to resolve the important issues.

Posted by: Barry Welford | Jan 21, 2007 11:38:24 AM

Thanks for raising the question of sense making. It is one of the most powerful components of our capacity as knowledge workers and human beings yet one that is rarely talked about.

I would encourage you to read the work of Gary Klein (Sources of power: how people make decisions; The power of intuition: How to use your gut feelings to make better decisions at work.) His work on naturalistic decision making is based on solid research (ethnographic-like observations of behaviour over time) and, more importantly, they support many of the comments that have been presented. As so many posts highlighted there is a strong intuitive, sub-conscious dimension to solving problems. i would suggest that even those who identify that they collect information or break down big problems into subcomponents are using their intuitive judgment to help do this. For example, how does one determine what information to first look for? I think this is a process of intuition as well.


Posted by: Kirby Wright | Jan 21, 2007 11:54:09 AM

Pattern recognition is a key element - by chance I was discussing a similar subject with an advertising executive. He reported how he frequently observed a sudden change in colleagues - one day, they suddenly 'just get it" His theory was that it was down to having accumulated a certain level of experience through which someone has seen all the patterns/problems related to that business. From thereon, one subconsciously recognises them and makes sense of them reflexively where previously one had had to struggle through a more conscious process.

Posted by: John Dodds | Jan 21, 2007 12:00:47 PM

I usually start with thinking. Thinking in all directions. If it's a big problem, I generally get lost, so I choose a smaller part of the problem to focus. I start to collect information. As soon as I found something that makes sense, I add it to my understanding, and virtaully start a new iteration.

If it's a 'good' problem, I start to get passionate. This has three effects:
- more and more information that comes in my way fits in the problem.
- I'm loosing objectivity quite soon, and I'm starting to filter the incoming information. I am more or less conscious about this, so I am able to step back, but I like this way of getting involved too.
- I start to talk about the topic.

I tend to get lost in details, as you probably understood.

A book on the topic that I liked very much was 'Bounded Rationality', edited by Gerd Gigerenzer and Reinhard Selten

Posted by: johan steunenberg | Jan 21, 2007 12:06:57 PM

Like Kirby, I do believe in finding the patterns. Throughout the intense data collection and filtering process via interviews, reading books and web, I put myself into a role of a doctor that tries to diagnose a patient and to be correct, the "symptoms" should repeat themselves a few times in similar subjects. Then, at some point, a eureka moment arrives and the initial conflicting search process is replaced with a moment of internal reconciliation and the answer makes sense.

Posted by: Yulia | Jan 21, 2007 12:16:09 PM

Years ago I used to get as much information as possible and just started reading, thinking, reading, ... And after many weeks for reasonable complex subjects I just slowly sorted things out and started unterstanding. But it always seemed slow and time-consuming.

Then I heard about mindmapping and learned how to organise unstructured information into a more structured map :) For me that was the key concept in learning faster and more economically. Nowadays I put nearly everthing into mindmaps and it helps a lot to get an overview AND to remember things. If you use a tool like MindManager or FreeMind it gets even better because you can change the structure of your mindmap easily...

Posted by: Rob | Jan 21, 2007 12:36:49 PM

1. Gathering information from different sources.

2. Combining the information into one overview.
During this, the sources are compared and differences aare noted.
I'll try to find my own structure for the topic, sometimes oriented at the structure of the sources, sometimes not.
The structuring can take different styles: outlines and text, MindMaps, drawings, doodles, discussions, e-mails, phone calls, ...
The important part is to get if out of my mind, to view it outside of myself.
This whole second step can be highly iterative and even leads back to the first step if more information is necessary.

Interesting things I look out for: connections to other topics. Analogs in other topics I now about. My experience is that structure and patterns often repeat themselves across topcis, but have different terminology and different represenations in the literature.

Very interesting topic and I'm looking forward to your next post(s)!

Posted by: Jens | Jan 21, 2007 12:42:42 PM

Isolate. Eliminate. Validate. (Context - making sense of tech support problems)

In terms of general data gathering "if it's important to me, I will remember it". For everything else, there's google .....

Posted by: Mike Peter Reed | Jan 21, 2007 1:07:18 PM

Sense making is a process of growth not of completion. Understanding is a matter of degree. One never gains complete understanding. One only gains more understanding than what one previously posessed. Typically, what one seeks is a level of understanding that is functional -- a level of understanding that allows one to make predictions about the future. One need not have complete understanding to have a level of understanding that allows one to predict outcomes.

There is a direct relationship between the complexity of an issue and the time in which it takes to make sense of it. Natural ability and experience may affect the time required to make sense on a particular issue (positively and negatively). Frustration arises when one tries to compress the time required to make sense. Sense making is a cyclical process that takes time. Understanding is gained with each cycle of the process.

The universal process in making sense is tweaking the signal to noise ratio. One first eliminates as much noise as possible to create a model of reality. The model is created by increasing the focus on the essential elements and diminishing the focus on the extraneous elements. The act of simplification on an issue changes the issue from its natural state. It creates only a model. What one understands is the simplified verson not the actual issue.

To approach understanding of the actual phenomenon, one must continually/gradually add back the "noise" that is illiminated in prior attempts at understanding and incorporate this into ones model. The more noise one can convert to a signal within ones model will hopefully result in more accurate predictions and thus "make more sense" of the issue.

Ones understanding of an issue is measured by the degree of complexity incorporated into the model used for making predictions.

Posted by: Andrew | Jan 21, 2007 2:07:19 PM

Think. Feel. Do.

The 'Think' part is reading around the subject, hoovering up information and talking to other people about their point of view. 'Feel' means going off to do something different and letting the pieces drop into place. 'Do' is the time to structure my thoughts into something that makes sense and can be explained to someone else as simply as possible.

Posted by: gemma | Jan 21, 2007 2:42:30 PM

I gather information, organize it, but it only makes sense to me when I can explain it from beginning to end in terms of a story (or perhaps pattern) that fits in with what I have experienced directly in the world. A great learning experience is when I can see something I *know* from a different perspective or if it changes my view entirely. Still, somehow it is all based on my own sense perception of the world.

Posted by: Alison | Jan 21, 2007 2:46:31 PM

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