Sensemaking is a collaborative technique used to validate, organise and interpret research data. Find out how to plan and run a sensemaking workshop.

User research activities can result in a large, sometimes overwhelming amount of data. Sensemaking is a collaborative technique used to validate, organise and interpret research data.

Why we should sensemake

Research data needs to be analysed and interpreted so it becomes useful to the team, and can guide the way they design and deliver a service.

Your analysis should be unbiased and objective, and you’ll need to do it quickly. You could try to do it on your own but this creates problems:

  • your personal biases and opinions will influence your interpretation
  • your logic may not make sense every time
  • you will not have time to explain all your decisions — no one will be able to judge whether your analysis is solid

Collaborative sensemaking overcomes these problems. In a sensemaking workshop you share your data with different people and ask them to do the analysis with you in a structured way. This is a fast and productive way to understand whether everyone sees the same issues from the evidence, gather different perspectives on the data and check that your analysis of the problem is thorough.

As well as producing more robust insight, collaborative sensemaking gives the wider team (including users and stakeholders) an opportunity to see for themselves what was seen and heard, and reflect on what this means for the project. It helps everyone on the team become part of the design decision-making process.

How to make sense of your research

Collecting your data

At the end of every research session, record your most important thoughts and ideas while they’re fresh. Use these questions to prompt your thinking:

  • what is this saying or what is trying to be conveyed here?
  • what is this an example of?
  • what do I see going on here?

This is a good time to make sure that your research approach and questions are still relevant. Change your questions - or your approach — if you feel you’re not learning anything.

Soon you’ll have collected a vast amount of data, and it will be in many formats. For example, statistics, transcripts, video recordings and scribbled notes.

When to run a sensemaking workshop

Every project is different. But as a rule, you should use sensemaking workshops as part of your research analysis after any significant piece of user research when you need to either:

  • make sense of the research
  • validate conclusions you have already made about the research

Once you have a good grasp of sensemaking, you should include workshops in the team’s project plan. Sensemaking may be a new concept to the team and this will help underline its importance and value.

Before your workshop

Prepare your data so it’s easy for workshop participants to use and understand.

Sticky notes are good because you can move them around easily and use colours as categories. Use them to write important points, quotes and categories. You could also print out and cut up typed notes or transcripts separately.

Label each piece of data so you know which participant number, workshop and task it relates to. Make sure you leave out any information which could be used to identify research participants.

If your research involves watching someone do something, categorise your notes by:

  • what the participant said
  • what the participant did
  • what the researcher/observer/facilitator thought

Labelling gives you a record so you can understand and — if necessary — explain how decisions were made.

Choosing your participants

Plan your session to make sure you involve the right people and make best use of the time available. Who you invite will depend on your project, the goals of the workshop, the project phase and the time and space available.

There should be a maximum of 9 participants per facilitator, who can be split into smaller groups for some activities. Participants can be more likely to contribute if they’re in a smaller group. You can easily scale a workshop with the support of more facilitators.

A mix of people from different disciplines, roles, or with different relationships to the service is essential to provide the perspectives you need.

Think about how the participants will relate to each other and the different levels of experience and understanding of the project. Also consider what skills are needed to take part - such as reading or analysing research data - and what experience people may have of this.

You should consider people from these groups:

  • users and stakeholders of the service
  • people who have observed research workshops
  • people involved in making decisions about the design of the service
  • people whose work will be directly affected by the workshop

Making participants comfortable

Building trust is an essential part of collaboration. Treat participants as equals, with respect and care. When you first invite them to take part, consider their time and commitments. Explain clearly:

  • the value and goals of the workshop
  • what you expect from them
  • anything they need to do in advance

When planning the workshop, make sure:

  • the format of the workshop lets all participants contribute, regardless of any disability
  • the location is easy for everyone to reach and enter and has suitable facilities
  • you provide extra support for those who may need it
  • all participants understand and agree with any ‘rules of engagement’ — for example, behaving appropriately and keeping conversations confidential, especially if you’re sharing sensitive data
  • participants who have contributed data to the workshop are not in a group looking at their own information
  • to limit the number of non-participants in the room

Make sure there’s enough space for small groups to move around. The wall space should be big enough to display the research and to allow the groups to work on it.

You may want to record the workshop with photos and/or film. This can be helpful to share the findings more widely afterwards. Get permission from the participants and give them the chance to opt out of being recorded if they wish. This should be included when you get consent.

Planning the workshop activities

Create a workshop plan based on your research and aims. You may already have themes, assumptions or user needs to validate — think about how you’ll present them to people who are not as close to the project as you.

For guidance, timings and activities download the Collaborative Sensemaking Template.

What to bring to the workshop

To run the workshop you should bring:

  • data from the research you’ve carried out
  • any additional research for supporting evidence
  • sticky notes
  • marker pens

Facilitating the workshop

A facilitator will prompt discussion and keep conversations focused. This could be someone with facilitation experience, but if you want to reduce bias you should use someone who is not attached to your project.

As a facilitator, your role is to draw out the thoughts and experiences of the group, asking questions rather than letting your own opinion influence the discussion. Participants should be doing most of the talking.

Question any individual opinions or anecdotal evidence. Keep bringing the discussion back to the research data. The workshop is about understanding the problem so keep the focus on the problems, challenges and barriers, not on possible solutions.

The workshop is an opportunity to review and discuss, not to reach agreement on everything. If the discussion gets stuck on something, move on to the next topic.

Writing up the results

At the end of the workshop the participants will provide you with one or more sets of themes. You must now bring these together and sensitively balance and judge the different perspectives.

You can share the results in different ways, for example a concise presentation or report. This should summarise the research, what it means for the project and how it can help the project team take action.

Before starting on the report or presentation, write up the workshop notes and data. This will help you form a story around the findings, making them easier to describe and communicate.

You should also present and discuss your findings with any workshop participants who are not on your project team. This only needs to be an informal presentation.

Read more about communicating findings.