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Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Making sense of sensemaking – the dimensions of participatory design rationale

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Over the last year or so, I’ve used IBIS (Issue-Based Information System) to map a variety of discussions at work, ranging from design deliberations to project meetings  [Note: see this post for an introduction to IBIS and this one for an example of mapping dialogues using IBIS].   Feedback from participants indicated that IBIS helps to keep the discussion focused on the key issues, thus leading to better outcomes and decisions.  Some participants even took the time to learn the notation (which doesn’t take long) and try it out in their own meetings.  Yet, despite their initial enthusiasm, most of them gave it up after a session or two. Their reasons are well summed up by a colleague who said, “It is just too hard to build a coherent map on the fly while keeping track of the discussion.”

My colleague’s comment points to a truth about the technique: the success of a sense-making session depends rather critically on the skill of the practitioner. The question is:  how do experienced practitioners engage their audience and build a coherent map whilst keeping the discussion moving in productive directions? Al Selvin, Simon Buckingham-Shum and Mark Aakhus provide a part answer to this  question in their paper entitled, The Practice Level in Participatory Design Rationale : Studying Practitioner Moves and Choices. Specifically, they describe a general framework within which the practice of participatory design rationale (PDR) can be analysed  (Note: more on PDR in the next section).   This post is a discussion of some aspects of the framework and some personal reflections based on my (limited) experience.

A couple of caveats are in order before I proceed. Firstly, my discussion focuses on understanding the dimensions (or variables) that describe the act of creating design representations in real-time.  Secondly,   my comments and reflections on the model are based on my experiences with  a specific design rationale technique – IBIS.


First up, it is worth clarifying the meaning of participatory design rationale (PDR). The term refers to the collective reasoning behind decisions that are made when a group designs an artifact. Generally such rationale involves consideration of various alternatives and why they were or weren’t chosen by the group.  Typically this involves several people with differing views.  Participatory design is thus an argumentative process, often with political overtones.

Clearly, since design involves deliberation and may also involve a healthy dose of politics, the process will work more effectively if it is structured. The structure should, however, be flexible: it must not constrain the choices and creativity of those involved. This is where the notation and practitioner (facilitator) come in: the notation lends structure to the discussion and the practitioner keeps it going in productive directions, yet in a way that sustains a coherent narrative. The latter is a creative process, much like an art.  The representation (such as IBIS) – through its minimalist  notation and grammar – helps keep the key issues, ideas and arguments  firmly in focus.  As Selvin noted in an  earlier paper, this  encourages collective creativity because it forces participants to think through their arguments more carefully than they would otherwise.  Selvin coined the term knowledge art to refer to this process of developing and engaging with design representations.  Indeed, the present paper is a detailed look at how practitioners create knowledge art – i.e. creative, expressive representations of the essence of design discussions.  Quoting from the paper:

…we are looking at the experience of people in the role of caretakers or facilitators of such events – those who have some responsibility for the functioning of the group and session as a whole. Collaborative DR practitioners craft expressive representations on the fly with groups of people. They invite participant engagement, employing techniques like analysis, modeling, dialogue mapping, creative exploration, and rationale capture as appropriate. Practitioners inhabit this role and respond to discontinuities with a wide variety of styles and modes of action. Surfacing and describing this variety are our interests here.

The authors have significant experience in leading deliberations using IBIS and other design rationale methods. They propose a theoretical framework to identify and analyse various moves that practitioners make in order to keep the discussion moving in productive direction. They also describe various tools that they used to analyse discussions, and specific instances of the use of these tools. In the remainder of this post, I’ll focus on their theoretical framework rather than the specific case studies, as the former (I think) will be of more interest to readers. Further, I will focus on aspects of the framework that pertain to the practice – i.e. the things the practitioner does in order to keep the design representation coherent, the participants engaged and the  discussion useful, i.e. moving in productive directions.

The dimensions of design rationale practice

So what do facilitators do when they lead deliberations? The key actions they undertake are best summed up in the authors’ words:

…when people act as PDR practitioners, they inherently make choices about how to proceed, give form to the visual and other representational products , help establish meanings, motives, and causality and respond when something breaks the expected flow of events , often having to invent fresh and creative responses on the spot.

This sentence summarises the important dimensions of the practice. Let’s look at each of the dimensions in brief:

  1. Ethics:  At key points in the discussion, the practitioner is required to make decisions on how to proceed. These decisions cannot (should not!) be dispassionate or objective (as is often assumed), they need to be made with due consideration of “what is good and what is not good” from the perspective of the entire group.
  2. Aesthetics: This refers to the representation (map) of the discussion.  As the authors put it, “All diagrammatic DR approaches have explicit and implicit rules about what constitutes a clear and expressive representation. People conversant with the approaches can quickly tell whether a particular artifact is a “good” example. This is the province of aesthetics.” In participatory design, representations are created as the discussion unfolds. The aesthetic responsibility of the practitioner is to create a map that is syntactically correct and expressive. Another aspect of the aesthetic dimension is that a “beautiful” map will engage the audience, much like a work of art.
  3. Narrative:   One of the key responsibilities of the practitioner is to construct a coherent narrative from the diverse contributions made by the participants. Skilled practitioners pick up connections between different contributions and weave these into a coherent narrative. That said, the narrative isn’t just the practitioner’s interpretation; the practitioner has to ensure that everyone in the group is happy with the story; the story is to the group’ s story.  A coherent narrative helps the group make sense of the discussion: specifically the issues canvassed, ideas offered and arguments for and against each of them. Building such a narrative can be challenging because design discussions often head off in unexpected directions.
  4. Sensemaking: During deliberations it is quite common that the group gets stuck. Progress can be blocked for a variety of reasons ranging from a lack of ideas on how to make progress to apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion on the best way to move forward. At these junctures the role of the practitioner is to break the impasse. Typically this involves conversational moves that open new ground (not considered by the group up to that point) or find ways around obstacles (perhaps by suggesting compromises or new choices).  The key skill in sensemaking is the ability to improvise, which segues rather nicely into the next variable.
  5. Improvisation: Books such as Jeff Conklin’s classic on dialogue mapping describe some standard moves and good practices in PDR practice. In reality, however, a practitioner will inevitably encounter situations that cannot be tackled using standard techniques. In such situations the practitioner has to improvise. This could involve making unconventional moves within the representation or even using another representation altogether.  These improvisations are limited only by the practitioner’s creativity and experience.

Using case studies, the authors illustrate how design rationale sessions can be analysed along the aforementioned dimensions, both at a micro and macro level. The former involves a detailed move-by-move study of the session and the latter an aggregated view, based on the overall tenor of episodes consisting of several moves.  I won’t say any more about the analyses here, instead I’ll discuss the relevance of the model to the actual practice of design rationale techniques such as dialogue mapping.

Some reflections on the model

When I first heard about dialogue mapping, I felt the claims made about the technique were exaggerated: it seemed impossible that a simple notation like IBIS (which consists of just three elements and a simple grammar) could actually enhance collaboration and collective creativity of a group.  With a bit of experience, I began to see that it actually did do what it claimed to do. However, I was unable to explain to others how or why it worked.  In one conversation with a manager, I found myself offering hand-waving explanations about the technique – which he (quite rightly) found unconvincing. It seemed that the only way to see how or why it worked was to use it oneself.   In short: I realised that the technique involved tacit rather than explicit knowledge.

Now, most practices– even the most mundane ones – involve a degree of tacitness.  In fact, in an earlier post I have argued that the concept of best practice is flawed because it assumes that the knowledge involved in a practice can be extracted in its entirety and codified in a manner that others can understand and reproduce. This assumption is incorrect because the procedural aspects of a practice (which can be codified) do not capture everything – they miss aspects such as context and environmental influences, for instance. As a result a practice that works in a given situation may not work in another, even though the two may be similar.  So it is with PDR techniques – they work only when tailored on the fly to the situation at hand. Context is king. In contrast the procedural aspects of PDR techniques– syntax, grammar etc – are trivial and can be learnt in a short time.

In my opinion, the value of the model is that it attempts to articulate tacit aspects of PDR techniques. In doing so, it tells us why the techniques work in one particular situation but not in another.  How so? Well, the model tells us the things that PDR practitioners worry about when they facilitate PDR sessions – they worry about the form of the map (aesthetics), the story it tells (narrative), helping the group resolve  difficult issues (sensemaking), making the right choices (ethics) and stepping outside the box if necessary (improvisation). These are tacit skills- they can’t be taught via textbooks, they can only be learnt by doing.  Moreover, when such techniques fail the reason can usually be traced back to a failure (of the facilitator) along one or more of these dimensions.

Wrapping up

Techniques to capture participatory design rationale have been around for a while. Although it is generally acknowledged that such techniques aid the process of collaborative design, it is also known that their usefulness depends rather critically on the skill of the practitioner. This being the case, it is important to know what exactly skilled practitioners do that sets them apart from novices and journeymen. The model is a first step towards this. By identifying the dimensions of PDR practice, the model gives us a means to analyse practitioner moves during PDR sessions – for example, one can say that this was a sensemaking move or that was an improvisation. Awareness of these types of moves and how they work in real life situations can help novices learn the basics of the craft and practitioners master its finer points.

Written by K

February 3, 2011 at 10:25 pm

8 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dux Raymond Sy, PMP and paulculmsee, Kailash Awati. Kailash Awati said: Making sense of sensemaking: http://wp.me/p6MRd-1e2 […]


  2. Kailash,

    Thanks very much for the insightful writeup about our paper.

    A couple of comments:

    – the paper is an extension of a shorter one originally written for the NSF Workshop on Creativity and Rationale in Software Design convened by John Carroll at Penn State in 2008. As such it focused on design rationale, but the research it’s based on covers the broader area of participatory representations in general (one family of which is certainly design rationale).

    – There will be quite a bit more material, analysis, case studies, theory, and literature review on these themes in my doctoral dissertation, which will (almost assuredly!) be available later this year.

    All the best,



    Al Selvin

    February 4, 2011 at 7:01 am

  3. Al,

    I’m glad (and relieved!) you liked my write-up. To be honest, I’m generally a little apprehensive when I publish a paper review because I’m never entirely sure I’ve interpreted it correctly. This makes your feedback particularly welcome. Thank you!

    If possible – I would love to have a copy of your thesis when it is available.





    February 4, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    • For sure re the dissertation. A draft should be complete in the next month or so, final in the next few months.

      This video has some details about the research but also some of the uses I’ve been putting Compendium to in the research itself: http://knowledgeart.blogspot.com/2011/02/using-compendium-for-research.html



      Al Selvin

      February 6, 2011 at 8:46 am

    • Hi Kailash,

      As a follow-up to this, the abstract is now available at http://bit.ly/dJloX3. I have about 5 weeks til final submission. If you’d like to review/comment on the thesis draft (which I would welcome!) please let me know and I will get you a copy.



      Al Selvin

      March 14, 2011 at 12:12 am

      • Al,

        Thanks for the follow-up. I’d love to have a look at your draft. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back to you with useful comments within the 5 week deadline though…





        March 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm

  4. I often discuss the concept of joint/rapid application design in my presentations around project management and business analysis topics in the SharePoint space. Design aside, the benefits of this model – in my view – can be summarized in two points: 1) if you can include all key stakeholders in the design/prototype activities, you will dramatically speed up the overall development process that would otherwise get bogged down in committee, and 2) any system that is designed with stakeholder and end user involvement is much more likely to be adopted/approved/accepted by those stakeholders and end users, plain and simple.


    Christian Buckley

    February 5, 2011 at 7:22 am

  5. Christian,

    Thanks for your comments. True, stakeholder inclusion and involvement are key factors in successful design. However, IMO, visual representations such as IBIS bring a whole lot more to design discussions. Firstly, visual notations can capture the essence of discussion in a way that is simply not possible in prose. Secondly, and this is a point Al Selvin emphasises, they can actually engender creativity. See my posts on the effectiveness of visual representations and IBIS and collaborative knowledge creation for more on these points.





    February 5, 2011 at 9:19 am

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