Chapter 07

Sense-making stage


Overview of sense-making stage

Bistra Job title

The Sense-Making Stage comes next in the process. Before we get into what to do at this stage, let’s talk about what sense-making actually is. 

The term sensemaking broadly describes the process in which individuals engage to make sense of ambiguous situations or information.

At this stage we are looking to understand how the stakeholders are experiencing the issue, and make sense of the various causes and effects.

We will be synthesising information, stories and research data points gathered from the Empathy Stage.

The Design Thinking Guidebook describes sense-making as the practice of participants making unclear information more clear

There are a bunch of different tools that can help with sense-making, some of which include affinity mapping, journey mapping and personas. These tools will help you to create and interpret rich pictures of the various people and experiences involved in your project. The pages that follow tell you how to get started on these activities.  The tools provided in this stage will assist in creating rich pictures of the various personas involved in the project as well as make sense of their experiences.

At the end of the Sense-Making Stage, the tools that you’ve used should help you to organize your information, identify emerging themes from it and gain insights into the experiences of participants.

Experiences from the field

Making sense of our data & finding key insights

Once you have gathered research data what do you do with it?

Sense making is a process of organising and identifying patterns among large amounts of research data.

There are tools to use when we have lots of different pieces of qualitative data, and to gain a common understanding about the reality of the person affected by the issue.

Affinity map

The Affinity Map is a key analysis tool for helping find the most relevant insights from your research, by categorising and clustering insights and seeing which trends emerge.

The process allows us to identify patterns in the data.

We let the data suggest the labels for these groups rather than starting with predefined categories.


The insights that come from this activity, will be about what people told you about how they think and feel about the challenge. Design Thinking places the people affected by an issue or who could help change it, at the centre of the process, so this step is incredibly important.

How it works

Start with a blank sheet.

Catalogue findings & observations – 20 mins

Write up the findings from each research activity.

Start with your individual interview notes, review them and write up findings. These can be individual words, phrases or direct quotations. One finding per sticky note using red notes.

Then go to any other research sources you have found. Review these and again write short findings, one per sticky note using blue notes.

As a group it is likely you will have similar or duplicate sticky notes from different activities. That is OK!

Create an affinity map of the data – 20 mins

As a group, silently rearrange the sticky notes into groups, putting notes that seem to be related together.

Continue this way until everyone is satisfied. It’s okay to have lone notes, and it’s okay to move a note that someone else has already grouped.

Themes or types of data will emerge. Label the groups with a different size or colour sticky note.

Add artefacts. Add any additional artefacts like pictures, sketches or diagrams to the affinity map.

Identify patterns or insights. Note patterns, insights, and new questions that emerge from the sensemaking. Write these up and categorise these in a new space.

Write up the main insights and conclusions

 What does an affinity map look like? – example

An example from CIVICUS. We wanted to enable our 11,000 members to directly communicate with each.

20 qualitative interviews asking:

  • How do members currently communicate with one another?
  • What are the benefits of their current communication methods?
  • What limitations are imposed on Alliance members by their current communication methods?
  • Why do Alliance members want to engage with each other?
  • Why is it important that members communicate information securely?

Tools for sense-making


Tools for sense making include:

  • System analysis
  • Disrupt the system
  • Mapping Allies / Target audiences
  • Persona Map

Personas tell us who our key stakeholders are. They are archetypes, that combine similar characteristics from the different people we spoke to in our research, to form a persona.

From our research we may see several different personas emerging. We want to choose one to focus on.

Empathy Maps tell us what their attitudes and behaviours are in relation to the challenge

They provide in depth context about what a user is saying, thinking, feeling and doing whilst trying to overcome the challenge.

  • they help the team to think of our stakeholders as real people
  • they focus on people’s experiences and behaviours
  • they are easy to update after each round of research


Thinking about the challenge, from the perspective of your chosen persona, work around the empathy map. Answer the questions by drawing from your research insights and the affinity map.

It is important to try and draw from their words, their experiences rather than our own interpretation.

Best practices

Philipp Job title
Fred Job title

I managed to do the whole empathy and sensing phase online, before the participants met in-person. It really worked – because it gave participants time for research but also getting on the same page. And the rest of the phases, while done in-person, were much smoother than anything I have ever experienced.

Victoria, I4C LAC Hub
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What if we do parts online and offline?

Pang Job title
Deepta Job title

Hybrid codesign works! But we need to know the circumstances of the session (internet, size, participants) ahead of time and really take those circumstances seriously! Empathy and sense making are easier phases to cover online, but in case of internet or language barriers, Miro or any other white boards might not be the best option for harvesting content.

Joseph Kabiru, I4C Hub Africa
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