Augmenting the Process of Sensemaking within Design Research

March 2019, 16 Weeks


Our world is becoming more and more complex — every service, every product and every interaction can be linked to any other system. We live in a system of even more dynamic systems. Designers have made it their business to help shape these complex products and services. With growing responsibility being transferred to design, the level of requirement also grows.

Navigating within this complexity of increasingly complex systems, dynamic variables and trying to make sense out of all the constituents of the corresponding problem space has become a challenging task for designers.

In our Thesis, we investigated the process of sensemaking in the context of design research to support designers cognitive and creative capacity of revealing novel meaning out of large research data.


With this project, we investigate the process of sensemaking, explore the theory & practice of design research and developed principles which are crucial for the process of design synthesis while designer bringing meaning to data.

Leveraging the theoretical foundation we created a tool called Link, that enables designers to augment their capabilities in managing, structuring and analyzing large sets of research data, to ultimately develop novel and comprehensible insights.


Max Mertens
Florian Deitermann
Janis Walser

Conceptual Foundation

Theory of Synthesis

The process of synthesis is the most complex and the one representing the most integral activity of the design process. In order to understand how the process of synthesis in design can be supported and why this activity plays such a crucial role in design research, we explored the underlying theory of how designers make sense and how they make judgments under partial or incomplete information and how designers solve problems.

Problem Representation

An important aspect of the thinking process by which people search for possible ways to get to their goal is the mental representations of the problem. During the synthesis, this cognitive process is usually mapped to a physical representation of the designers mental model. These physical visual organizational principles influence how people present problems, understand problems, and therefore, generate problem solutions.
The principles of visual perception, e.g. proximity, closure, grouping, are directly important for problem-solving due to the physical layout of the problem, e.g. a research wall, or a diagram that supports the problem description and thus generates problem solutions.

Types of Reasoning

Filtering, organizing, and prioritizing uncertain and ambiguous information is at its core decision-making. Deciding what unit of information is more related to a particular cluster, deciding why a post-it is treated with higher priority, deciding why a whole data set gets discarded – the underlying principle of decision-making is called reasoning. Three types of reasoning can be distinguished.

Unlike induction or deduction, abduction refers above all to the experience and thus intuition of the designer. This implies that decisions are not clearly based on sound evidence or general rules but instead guided by a learned understanding, shaped by the complex structure of experience and refined over time and practice.

Collective Sensemaking

The understanding of synthesis as a form of collecting and organizing information into a representation to understand a complex problem is often associated with the term sensemaking. It describes the natural human effort to construct a sense of one’s experiences and to embed these into their understanding of the world around them.

In the case of the design researcher, the aim is to make sense of all the present data and information that — according to his understanding — can offer vital progress for the problem solution. One of the characteristics of sensemaking is that the process of thinking, which take place in the mind of each individual is implicit due to the cognitive psychological nature, while synthesis can be a collaborative, external process.

Key aspects of Synthesis

Further, we went out to get a realistic overview of how designer making synthesis by everyday challenges. We conducted qualitative interviews by in-house designer at IBM or KaiserX Labs as well as experienced design researcher at IDEO, Designit, Fjord and Dark Horse to get a deeper understanding how they work and what challenges they face in practice.

As a result of both, our investigation of the process of sensemaking, and our findings from the interviews, we derived key aspects of synthesis, that illustrate important principles, mechanics and components for the process of sensemaking in design practice.

Making Thoughts Tangible

SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

Synthesis is about forcing an external view on data. By making thoughts tangible and transferring them to a physical space, they become part of a shared sensemaking process. The effort of getting thoughts, reflections, and ideas out of our minds is called Externalization.

Think with
your hands
SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

People’s thoughts, choices and insights can be transformed by physical interaction with things. In the course of problem-solving, we naturally tend to recruit artefacts and manipulate them to augment and transform our ability to think and to explain ourselves.

SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

As the team gathers more and more data, each artifact is transferred to a research wall, a physical space where the artifacts are mapped out. By organizing these artifacts in ways that illustrate meaning, the researcher is able to build up a representation of his mental model.

Giving Meaning to Data

Confidence to
SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

To avoid cognitive overload, researchers want to move away as fast as possible from raw data. By sorting out redundant information, prioritizing, summarizing and interpreting, the researcher is starting to make sense out of the data. This activity is crucial toward a fast process and necessary for handling amounts of data.

Be Abductive
SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

Qualitative data alone has little value. Only when this data is interpreted, underlying needs are identified and novel meaning is created, the true value of qualitative research shows. In order to achieve this, the researcher applies abductive logic, to give meaning to data.

Personal Bias
SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

While making sense of data, interpretations or insights will always be influenced by the personal bias and the individual experience of the researcher. Due to background, experience or personal bias, each participant has a different valuable view — but it is important to be aware of it.

Sharing a Mental Model

is Key
SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

While sense making is an internal, personal process, the process of synthesis works best when it’s done external and collaborative. The interaction and collaboration with other team members or stakeholders will uncover different views, spark new discussions and eventually inspire others.

SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

When sharing research findings with others — team members, client or with other stakeholders — storytelling plays a crucial role in order to be able to evangelize a point of view on the research findings. Insight or solution are mostly sustainable when they are communicated in a way that the audience reveals the Insight by themselves.

SVG-Statistik mit HTML-img-Tag laden

Continuous alignment is crucial for a shared understanding during design research and supports the collective sensemaking process. Design synthesis requires a work environment where silos of knowledge cannot occur and insights are comprehensible for everyone.

Having completed the research phase, and with the principles we’ve developed in mind, we started to put our ideas into concrete terms. We explored concepts that already emerged during research and started ideating on possible solutions. We conducted a Design Sprint and derived the result into four core concepts that build the foundation of Link.


Link is a digital platform for supporting the designer in making sense of data. It enables intuitive and effortless externalization of thoughts, managing and structuring and analyzing large sets of research data and augment a collective process of sensemaking in a spatial playground with a focus to make insights accessible and comprehensible.

It is built for designers to encourage speculation and iteration of patterns and correlation in research data, to ultimately develop comprehensible insights and draw novel meaning from it.

Core Concept

Unifying Research Artifacts

The concept is based on the idea of unifying research artifacts, be it observations, quotes, images, audio and video files, into a coherent digital format. This format is what we call data assets. An asset can contain any type of information representing a unit of meaning which the researcher considers valuable to the process of sensemaking.

A place for unifying research artefacts

With our framework, we support users to effortless externalize thoughts, observations or findings during a debrief session to avoid cognitive overload and individual silos of knowledge.

A Framework 
for Data Analysis

Link is a framework that enables to manage, structure and analyze all kinds of data — be it qualitative, quantitative or data from secondary research. It allows easily to quickly locate and retrieve information, without losing the overview.

A Playground for Collective Sensemaking

It enables designers to try things out and iterate, without fearing to destroy the created. The Canvas support designer to forge connections between seemingly unrelated issues through a process of sorting, grouping and visual organization.


Link is our Bachelor’s Thesis in Interaction Design. We worked on it during the summer of 2019.


Download the full
Bachelor Thesis ↓

Reading List


Prof. David Oswald
Andreas Koller

Hochschule für Gestaltung
Schwäbisch Gmünd