The Goldilocks Understanding

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Three stages of understanding involved in sensemaking based on Weick (1993)

Last week, I came across a chapter written by Karl Weick in 1993 about sensemaking and found a few concepts quite useful to better understand information designers’ simplification process and why, often, outputs do not work as intended. It is not new that information designers’ goal is to make sense of and visually communicate a problem in such a way that it can be better understood (by an intended audience). But a key learning for me was how much the information designer’s depth of understanding of a problem has a direct impact on the effectiveness of their outputs.

Information designers’ understanding

Getting familiar with and gaining an understanding of the problem at hand is one of the most important parts of the sensemaking process. Many factors contribute to this part of the process. Designers can deepen their understanding by learning the audience’s point of view on the problem, and at the same time this views will help them get familiar with the audience. Reading and researching about key topics of the problem is another way to have a deeper sense. Important too is to digest and analyse all information gathered, rather than just accumulate it. Some designers sketch, create tables and make various types of working drawings in order to make sense of incoming information.
Building on Weick (1993), information designers go through three stages of understanding while making sense of a problem:

  1. Simplistic: We think we know what the topic is about, but are not able to explain it to another person using our own words. When we explain the topic, we miss key parts of the story and do not communicate the real essence. We have oversimplified the story as its core essence and key constituent parts are absent. In information design, this stage of understanding results in aesthetically pleasing but meaningless outputs. “Meaning is constructed when people link received cues with existing cognitive structures” (Weick). If these cues are missing, people cannot make sense of the information in the way it is presented.
  2. Complex: We have a broad sense of what the topic is about and we are familiar with key concepts, but when we describe it to someone else, we use complicated words and unclear sentences. The essence of the story is unclear and cues are hard to distinguish; consequently, people cannot understand what we are trying to communicate. This stage of understanding is common among information design outputs communicating scientific messages, for example. Content has not been fully comprehended by the designer, and the result can be visually sophisticated but intricate and impossible to make sense of. Even if cues are displayed they are overshadowed by other elements.
  3. Profoundly Simple: We are fully immerse in the topic and highly familiar with the core story and key concepts. We are able to communicate the topic using our own words and using basic and simple words that even a 5-year old child could understand. All elements of the story are in balance, and cues are clearly distinguished. When this stage of understanding is achieved in information design, visual harmony helps people navigate content and link what they are seeing with their prior knowledge, and be able to comprehend the message.

When information designers interrupt the sensemaking process before reaching the last stage, most likely, the resulting outputs will not be effective. Information designers’ poor understanding on something will translate on unclear, unintelligible or ambiguous solutions because content is communicated in either a too simplistic or too complex way, but not simple.

Simplification process

As sensemakers, great part of information designers’ job is to reduce a problem into its essence and determine its constituent parts. This part of sensemaking is described as the simplification process. First, designers differentiate and determine the key parts (building blocks), and then look for a unifying order between the parts (patterns, connections) without knowing if that order really exists:

“To serve adequately the demands of a constantly changing environment, we have not only to pick items out of their general setting, but we must know what parts of them may flow and alter without disturbing their general significance and functions” (Weick)

In other words, information designers reduce content to its essential features by identifying relevant from irrelevant information. After that, they decide how to visually communicate the message in a clearer way. For this process to be effective, information designers must reach the third stage of understanding.

However, many information designers struggle to gain that depth of understanding either for lack of time, budget or interest or simply because they are not sure what questions to ask, nor they expect clear answers. And they move further in the process without addressing any understanding gaps. Contrary to what the information age is about (i.e. large amounts of information), the solution to poor understanding is not gathering more and more information. Instead what is needed is richer qualitative information: information that sheds light on unknown parts of the problem and helps gain the necessary understanding within a short period of time.

Effective information design is achieving that Goldilocks balance between what to show (amount and type of information) and how to show it (visual representation). Information design is well-conceived and effective, when it is communicating in a profound simple way.

Weik, K.E. (1993) Sensemaking in organizations: Small structures with large consequences. (Murnighan, K.j., Ed.) In: Social Psychology in Organizations, Chapter 2.

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