Why Future Thinking needs Sensemaking

Peter JonesInnovation, Sensemaking, Wu Wei

An OCAD  graduate student in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program posted a compelling issue with innovation and design thinking in one of our online forums. The core of it read:

“I find many of us get so caught up in “future thinking” and attempts to be disruptively innovative that we forget the success of anything new depends greatly on peoples’ “existing understandings” and how we leverage them.”

Current practices in “future thinking” suggest the need for sensemaking research to support foresight studies. Sensemaking is grounded in the pre-understanding people bring to situations we are attempting to enhance by design intervention.

Studying these “existing understandings” poses risks to foresight projects, strangely enough.  Sensemaking studies involve understanding the messy details of reality people face, which can reveal huge disconnects between the desired future state and the current reality. Designers often prefer to “design around”reality toward a desired future state that people will somehow gravitate to, as in the now-fabled iPod and iTunes case studies. In some consumer service ecologies, this works well because people expect obsolescence, to replace devices and systems every so often anyway.

And in foresight projects, design and consulting firms (and some are masterful at this) often push clients toward designing for an unknowable future rather than current, discoverable user needs.  Clients genuinely want to lead their customer somewhere, and want some guidance in articulating strategy. Compared to designing for today’s service ecosystems, such projects are also glamorous, highly-visible, and no-fail (nobody remembers if you got the future wrong). Whereas working on today’s problems exposes you to the messy details of implementation, legacy, and diverse, existing user bases. They are risky, and you can fail, or be disrupted yourself.

The business argument for future design studies is often laden with notions of disruptive innovation and being first to market. However, a design firm bears no risk in the venture, and usually have no stake in the implementation. So a balanced design approach should find ways to bring the future back to the present need. Service design processes have some measure of this, as do participatory design processes such as Future Workshops, (which are user-led not design-led.)

Hidden in these programs we may find a measure of designer control built into the future-forward value proposition. Often such studies are managed closely by the design team, and user data is unavailable or covered up in the idealization. The suggestion is hinted that essentially “we the designers” know more about your future and what you want than you (the users or consumers) do. “We the designers”  also know you will end up liking what we give you better than the alternatives. (And usually the users are not participants, but subjects, in these studies).

Projective Methods vs Foresight Scenarios

Often we use expressive and generative methods to create future visions with the engagement of selected consumer participants. Projective metaphors (such as collaging, sandplay, and bodystorming) are an expressive way to decode consumer impressions and to understand emotional responses to proposals. They help us develop themes, rich concepts based on imagery, and help construct alternative viewpoints of a product or offer.Metaphoric methods are idiographic (based on a small number of unique individual responses), and by themselves are not suitable for generalizing to larger populations. Visual languages can help people not versed in the vocabulary of the product or system to articulate their preferences.

A projection is not sensemaking, but it is a powerful form of conceptual blending that leads to new ideas. But projective methods used without contextual research can ignore the reality of the individual’s lived experience.  I would argue you need both (at least), the unique projection of ideas and metaphors and a general (nomothetic) understanding, based on multiple data points, of how people make sense of their world.

We might also distinguish between foresight and future thinking; this makes a difference with respect to method and outcome. Foresight is an emerging system of methods for masking informed speculations for decision making. It has a lot in common with sensemaking, in its grounding in understanding the past/present continuum and researching scenarios to better inform and anticipate future decision options. Future thinking is (becoming) a design thinking practice for genertive scenarios that re-imagine and project speculative alternatives. Behind this practice is the assumption from Alan Kay’s powerful quote that “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”  But how do we know just what to invent? Innovations are taken up in economic and cultural ecologies that have long-standing processes that are not reinvented with the arrival of an invented disruption. Consider the difficulties in merely suggesting regulatory changes to the runaway US securities markets.

Let’s look at some methodological differences. What do we miss when focusing on projected futures? People don’t reveal things that you don’t ask about or observe. And their real worlds are a concrete mix of work, family, personal goals, immediate needs, questions, aspirations. Sensemaking research explores the way people construct and muddle through their lives, how they encounter situations and make decisions based on their own experiences. Generally, people make sense of events and project meaning from their past experience and not from an ungrounded future state.  So we have to understand “how people think today,” not how they will think in the future.

As with any scenario design approach, we take this learning into account.  We design a path that connects “user sensemaking” to the emergent opportunities expressed in the information and interaction. We design platforms as thoughtful infrastructures, allowing for continued and unobtrusive development of new features, while enabling users and other stakeholders to easily find their way today.