Experience research: Making Sense of Sensemakers?

Peter JonesDesign research, Sensemaking, Wu Wei

Consider design research – is it a discipline or no? Consider design researchers – researchers or are we really design consultants? A discipline has a body of knowledge, and a clear way of contributing to literature so that we know what we know.  A real discipline has a theoretical base, and ways of using that theory toward outcomes in line with accepted values of the field.

In design research, what are the guiding theories and epistemologies that we recognize as credible and meaningful? What are the underlying philosophical assumptions that distinguish design research from market and user research? From social sciences or business research? Is it all really just (perhaps) a difference in methodology?  And if so, isn’t that just technique and an activity that only supports the instrumental goals of a design project?

Even if design research is not leading innovation per se (see Don Norman’s Technology Leads and the recent DRC 2010) we should be leading with theories that help us make sense of what we’re inventing. If we are not creating contexts and joint understanding of impacts, then we are merely serving the instrumental purposes of products and clients. Sure, we can speak on behalf of our “users” but do we really have something to say ourselves? A recent (and ongoing) discussion on one of the old-timers design discussion groups surfaced this suggestion on the impact of theory in design:

“An effective theory is one whose purpose is clear and that defines and relates its elements in terms of the situations it addresses. It clearly communicates this structured knowledge and supports the actions necessary to realize goals regarding the circumstances it models. It provides evidence of its own effectiveness and produces useful knowledge.” (no citation yet)

Do we have one of these? Back before ethnography became methodologized into corporate practices, this was a critical and very real concern. Critical ethnographers (such as Bonnie Nardi) and ethnomethodologists (such as Mark Rouncefield) had the platform then. Theory was not drawn up based on fit to client, but to a great extent on temperament. On personal values, stance,  perspective, and even aesthetics. What counts as “useful knowledge” is based on perspective and values, not on what a client says. We are the ones who have to make that transformation.

Back to why sensemaking matters as theory in experience design then. Sensemaking research has developed, without our help, over a 20-30 year period. It has increased in currency and applicability, where other venerable models of understanding (contextual inquiry, usability testing) have dropped away as primary research models.  You can publish sensemaking research, while you really don”t want to publish usability research. Perhaps there is something to say here.

Brenda Dervin has positioned sense-making methodology in the literatures of communications and information sciences. Yet it is interdisciplinary work that builds a critical theory of individual agency interaction with structure. Unlike other critical theories (e.g., structuration Actor Network Theory) Dervin sense-making offers user experience a clarifying (if not actually unifying) theory of understanding human experience and behavior with respect to systems and structures.

User experience is surprisingly void of a theory of human experience and personhood.  While we continually use methods informed by hermeneutic epistemologies: personas, empathic design, contextual inquiry –  most of us in UX would not (really) know what hermeneutics means and why it matters.  Let alone Dervin’s “quadruple heremenutic.”

The focus on method to the expense of understanding is a problem with interdisciplinary fields and of design in general. The current ways of thinking of user experience, and to an increasing extent, design thinking is almost entirely methodological. It is absent of what Dervin calls meta-theory, and tends to focus more and more on clever ways of engaging the user and adapting ethnography to design. Theories are tacked-on in UX, as post hoc working models of what we believe to be significant. We are reduced to explaining the monolithic social net-mare of Facebook in terms of usability or media consumption. We may be losing our ever-thinning opportunities to make a difference by chasing after fashion and phenomena. We are not yet redesigning the purposes of systemic design and methodology for the emancipatory contexts demanded in healthcare, citizenship, city planning, and other social contexts.

Setting information free, the call of the Open movement, is not the point. We live in an information hegemony, according to Dervin. The questions we know how to ask about free information are channeled by habit, culture, and our relationship to structures. Free information is already colonized by our own blindness.

We do not even see how, for example, open access journals replicate the publisher system, just with in-house players chasing after the same public goods. We need ways to intervene that disentangle us from the fog of power that envelopes our thinking in the first place.  Can sense-making do this? well, it was designed to.

A Theory of Experience, or of User Experience?

Do the different theories of sensemaking matter, and if so, whose sensemaking and how to go? How does this make a difference with respect to practice and outcomes?

It appears to me that sensemaking sets a ground floor under experiences with information, artifacts, and complex services. ecessary to describe and explain the user experience (as its called) of interaction with situations and information. If Dervin would allow it, my proposal for the completion of the macro and micro levels of a UX theory of experience require the addition of two compatible reference models in a type of framework. The context of activity (or there is no “user” there) and micro-conscious enactment, as experienced within decisions and the sense-making moments of Dervin’s analysis. A larger frame of reference (e.g., macrocognition) may afford significant analytical power for a larger range of applications.

Finally, to offer a perspective on why this is important. We cannot address the tangles of power and powerlessness in our lives on an individual basis, which is where I may diverge from Dervin. Action research is a missing component of the sensemaking inquiry. If SMM researchers are to make sense of the “universal discontinuity of the human condition,” as Dervin suggests, we must also understand the response to discontinuity becomes a social act . People organize and socialize to remake their sense of concerns together. This may be what sensemaking misses today , and a possible position for eventual convergence between the different schools.