Situating sensemaking in the process of innovation

“the bottom-line goal of Sense-Making from its inception has been to find out what users – audiences, customers, patrons, employees – ‘really’ think, feel, want, dream” (Dervin, 1998)

Morente & Ferràs (2018) paper, based on the practical and theoretical contributions of Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making Theory (2015), provided me with this quoted reference that set me off down a path to discovery, and dare I say it, sensemaking. While sensemaking was an extremely popular word at the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago, rarely were the theoretical or academic roots of the concept mentioned. The emphasis was on introducing the variety of methods and tools, developed over the years by faculty practitioners and guest speakers alike, for the purpose of sensemaking.

Today, as I review Dervin’s decades of work (Kelly, 2021) and methodological development (see Naumer, Fisher, & Dervin, 2008; Dervin, 2015) I recognize that what we were being taught to do in our classes on Design Planning (and User Research) was essentially Dervin’s contribution to the field of human centered design, even if she did not situate herself there in her publications.

A public private partnership problem statement visualized as a design challenge for multi-stakeholder teams for a sustainable agricultural value chain design workshop convened for The Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs. Co-created with Jeroen Meijer of JAM Visueldenken, with inputs from LEI Wageningen specialists. November, 2012

A similar example comes to mind from my own first attempt at using the methods designers use as an aid to thinking (Bhan & Doorneweert, 2013) – nowhere do I use the word sensemaking or mention the co-generation and co-creation of visual sensemaking tools for collaborative creativity, as developed and used (seen in the photograph above).

Beyer, H., & Holtzblatt, K. (1999). Contextual design. interactions, 6(1), 32-42. with my red circles to show the points where sensemaking (Weick et al, and Dervin, etc) has to occur for invention.

Probably the most cited article in user research methodologies, Beyer & Holzblatt’s 1999 introduction to Contextual Inquiry, which explicates the need for arriving at shared understanding – first, between the user researcher and the user, and then, together with the rest of the product development team, but overlooks the importance of sensemaking as the critical function that drives this stage of the process between discovery and development.

An initial search on Google Scholar for Dervin and Design Research shows the lack of citations in academic publications from the disciplines of design, whilst it must be noted that for the most part, design education tends to be more of a practical and hands-on experiential learning experience than a theoretical one.

Sense‐making approach to studying and understanding users and designing systems to serve their needs (Dervin, 1998)

Yet, it is clear from her own work (Dervin, 2003) that Dervin’s Sense-Making Approach, Methodology, and Theory have very heavily informed the practice of human centered design, and the methods and tools of the critical phase between User Research and Concept Design . Her “bridge” (Morente & Ferràs, 2018) is what we create as we progress through these phases of the design process:

Thus, for Dervin (2008; 2003; 1992) sense is constructed when the sense-maker identifies and then bridges the gap in a given situation until an outcome is achieved; from one end to another, it is this bridge built across the void that constitutes sense. (Morente & Ferràs, 2018)

This journey is described by practitioners as “figuring things out” until arriving at a point of clarity that permits forward movement as visualized by Damien Newman’s design squiggle (Newman, 2006) below:

Morente & Ferràs (2018) point out the iterative and non-linear nature of Derwin’s Sense-Making approach as given below:

From this theoretical and practical approach, sensemaking, as with innovation, is characterized by iteration in response to a vast world of which we have no more than fragmentary sense (Dervin, 2008; 1992). This sense, far from being static and definitive, undergoes constant construction and deconstruction (Dervin, 1992), because it depends on 1) those who produce (the sensemakers); and 2) the situations, bound to a space and a time, in which they produce (Foreman-Wernet, 2003).

Its similarity to what we know of as the earliest stage of the human centered design process is indeniable (see Kolko, 2010), and could in fact be the basis for practice, rather than academic study (which may explain Dervin’s absence from the literature of design). The emphasis at ID-IIT, for instance, was clearly on experiential knowledge of the process of design planning (design before design/pre-design) rather than its theoretical underpinnings beyond those required for the integration of frameworks from business strategy or economics (Keeley, Heskett, Conley – class lectures and handouts only).

The lack of literature on design planning, its function and objectives, as well as approach and methodology is a loss that’s unique to disciplines where practice has always led theory. They’ve renamed it Innovation Planning now, but back in my day when I was Director of Graduate Admissions, one could choose Design Planning as the track to apply for the Masters in Design degree. For now, however, “the front end of innovation” can suffice as a working title for this phase, as ample literature exists on this topic.

The front end of innovation—those activities that take place to generate and nurture ideas before they enter the formal product development process—has been recognized as chaotic, unpredictable, and poorly structured in comparison to the new product development and commercialization process (Backman, Börjesson, and Setterberg 2007 ; Crawford and Di Benedetto 2008). […] Understanding the front end of innovation remains a challenge for management researchers and practitioners alike. (Harvey, Cohendet, Simon, & Borzillo, 2015).

Harvey et al (2015) situate the fuzzy front end of innovation among the community, but do not take the step further to discuss any form of collective sensemaking or individual sensemaking shared between community members. Their reference to Drazin, Glynn, & Kazanjian (1999) is from the perspective of creativity, although Drazin et al (1999) build on the paradigm of sensemaking for complex, large-scale, and long-duration organizational projects. This simply continues to show the lack of literature in this area.

On the other hand, Harvey et al (2015) point to Koen and colleagues’ (2001) deconstruction of the front end and the clarity and common language that their model provides, thus reducing the fuzziness associated with it. Koen et al’s highly cited New Concept Development (NCD) model is best introduced by the illustrations shown below:

Figure 2, pg. 51, Koen, Peter, et al. “Providing clarity and a common language to the “fuzzy front end”.” Research-Technology Management 44.2 (2001): 46-55.

A closer look at the circular Front End of Innovation part of the corporate innovation process below (Figure 1, pg 47, Koen et al, 2001):

Before speaking to this diagram, I did a search for the word “sensemaking” in their paper and there were no results. What is missing in the NCD model above, and is critical to organizational and team sensemaking prior to any kind of  innovation activities, is the exploratory user research scoped to “inform and inspire design and innovation” .

The other well-cited NCD model (Khurana & Rosenthal, 1998) shown below offers a pre-phase zero to the phase zero often referred to by design studios for their concept work, which situates where exploratory user research must come in as the means by which to address the answers required in this phase.

Nokia’s exploratory user researchers went out to the cities and villages in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, China, India, wherever mobile phones were seeds of a revolutionas a sensemaking exercise for innovation on a grand scale. What Ugandan grandmothers were doing with sente was informing the fuzziest of front ends for Nokia executives in Espoo. Their shared phone, for instance, was the outcome of early research in low income markets on the way mobiles were used. It was always intended as a transitional device in the market maturity curve until users could afford to acquire their own phone.

The biggest challenge, always, for such research is that it inspires and informs innovation in a viable, feasible, desirable manner. As we move from devices to services, and tangible to intangible outcomes, the case for effective sensemaking as a bridge between fieldwork’s gathered insights and the design and development teams back home becomes stronger.

It should be noted here that Dervin’s interview approaches (Dervin, 1983; 1997) are certainly a form of exploratory user research, but limit themselves to understanding the needs and thinking of people, albeit very deeply. This may not always be sufficient in the fast growth frontier market conditions which add layers of complexity.

This post will end here and I’ll approach the themes again from a different angle.



Beyer, H., & Holtzblatt, K. (1999). Contextual design. interactions, 6(1), 32-42.

Bhan, N., & Doorneweert, B. (2013, December). Using the methods designers use as aids to thinking: The case of public-private partnerships in sustainable agricultural value chain development. In 2013 IEEE Tsinghua International Design Management Symposium (pp. 277-283). IEEE.

Dervin, B. (1983). An overview of sense-making research: Concepts, methods and results. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dallas, TX, May. [On-line].

Dervin, B. (1998). Sense‐making theory and practice: an overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use. Journal of knowledge management.

Dervin, B. (2003). Human studies and user studies: a call for methodological inter-disciplinarity. Information Research, 9(1), 9-1.

Dervin, B. (2015). Dervin’s Sense-Making Theory. In Information seeking behavior and technology adoption: Theories and trends (pp. 59-80). IGI Global.

Drazin, R., Glynn, M. A., & Kazanjian, R. K. (1999). Multilevel theorizing about creativity in organizations: A sensemaking perspective. Academy of management review, 24(2), 286-307.

Harvey, J. F., Cohendet, P., Simon, L., & Borzillo, S. (2015). Knowing communities in the front end of innovation. Research-Technology Management, 58(1), 46-54.

Kelly, M. (2021). An interview with Professor Emeritus Brenda Dervin. The Information Society, 1-12.

Khurana, A., & Rosenthal, S. R. (1998). Towards holistic “front ends” in new product development. Journal of Product Innovation Management: An international publication of the product development & management association, 15(1), 57-74.

Koen, P., Ajamian, G., Burkart, R., Clamen, A., Davidson, J., D’Amore, R., Elkins, C., Herald, K., Incorvia, M., Johnson, A. and Karol, R. (2001). Providing clarity and a common language to the “fuzzy front end”. Research-Technology Management, 44(2), pp.46-55.

Morente, F., & Ferràs, X. (2018). Open perseverance: the sensemaking narrative of startup entrepreneurs. Journal of Business, Universidad del Pacífico (Lima, Peru), 10(2), 2-23.

Naumer, C., Fisher, K., & Dervin, B. (2008, April). Sense-Making: a methodological perspective. In Sensemaking Workshop, CHI (Vol. 8).

Blogposts Referenced:

Why is design important? Niti Bhan, written October, 2007
The power of sensemaking lies in its ability to reframe the challenge and its context, Niti Bhan April 8th, 2021
Design of Visual Sensemaking Tools for Informal Economy: Literature Review, Niti Bhan April 9th, 2021
Sensemaking in extreme conditions for enhancing resilience: Literature Review, Niti Bhan April 27th, 2021

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