Building a pragmatic definition for sensemaking.

The one-year course at the Austin Center for Design is aimed at helping students build a framework for approaching interaction design in a way that builds autonomy for the designer while helping them address problems worth solving.  For me personally, some of the sharpest spikes in learning and independence have occurred when I am able to see how the practice that we are learning is also embodied in the design of ac4d itself.  Typically, we have already been applying a technique for a while in the program before the theoretical underpinning really makes sense.

Most recently, we have been exploring the role of perception and abductive reasoning in the sensemaking process.  After already going through sensemaking in a variety of different ways in the last seven months, I’m starting to develop my own ethic and practice as an interaction designer.  And so while the theoretical readings around perception were very dense, abstract, and seemingly unrelated… my tacit knowledge of the sense-making process made it possible to delve into them a derive my own meanings.

I think one question central to the question of design practice (of which sensemaking is at the core) is why it has largely eluded definition or refinement in the past.

So our understanding of design is in many way inhibited by our lack of understanding of the mechanisms of the creative process.  Because we see a linear causal chain, we are fooled into thinking that the decisions made along the way were the result of deductive reasoning or else just a spark of randomness that can’t be defined.  What we lose in this sort of retrospective is the context of each decision and how a pragmatic consideration of context results in a kind exploratory reasoning called abduction.  What we think of as creativity may in fact only be the result of practicality in the right context.

If it is possible to highlight some of the mechanisms that push us toward new insights, then of course it’s also possible to build a methodology that refines and enriches those mechanisms.  I tend to think of abduction not just as a lateral thinking process, but actually as a sort of filter that helps us select from all of the ideas in our subconscious from moment to moment.

And so the sorts of problems that are the most difficult to navigate–ones with complex external dependencies and incomplete information–are also the problems where a rigorous sensemaking methodology will differentiate itself as most useful because it’s the sort of sensemaking that puts the highest premium on a pragmatic, integrative approach to exploring new ideas.

Pragmatism is, of course, highly dependent on intuition.  And in order to be pragmatic in a way that is mostly likely to be relevant to a problem, designers must make their intuitive understanding of a problem space rich with of the context that is most likely to make their ideas relevant.  Perhaps most importantly, context can’t be abstractly understood, it is inherently informed by activity in the problem space with the affected people.

And while ethnographic techniques are widely used in design research today, I think there is a lack of definition around the sensemaking process that follows research.  Just as a perceptual layer exists between the interactions that users have with systems, there is also a perceptual layer that exists between the designer and the system they are designing.  In order to create an effective dialog with a design, the designer must externalize their ideas as often as possible in the form of iconic artifacts that allow for new projections and subjective reactions.  During our course on rapid ideation and creative problem solving, our class had a shared experience around the need for this sort of dialog as we rapidly prototyped and iterated on designs of thermostat systems.

Externalizations create a kind of relationship with a system and the system itself starts to impose its own constraints and shapes the designer’s understanding even as the design shapes it.  Resilient traits survive this dialog and a solution eventually emerges.

This articulation from the designer isn’t the solution it’s a solution: it’s an argument through a rigorous and methodical creative process.

Thoughts?

-Scott