Sensemaking: What people do to understand their world

Dan Russell, Apple ATG

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University February 4, 1994


Making sense of complexity is a common activity. People must continually make sense of devices, interfaces, and large amounts of information. Sensemaking is the process of searching for a representation and encoding data in that representation to answer task-specific questions.

Different operations during sensemaking require differing cognitive and external resources. Representations are chosen and changed to reduce the cost of operations in a sensemaking task. The power of these representational shifts and their effect on resource use is generally under-appreciated. Subtle changes in the costs of sensemaking steps can have a profound effect on one's ability to make sense of the world. And, somewhat surprisingly, sensemaking appears to follow a fairly consistent patterns across different people, situations, domains, tools and methods.

Working from observations of people using computer systems to make sense of complex information sets, we develop a model of sensemaking and its cost structure. This lays the groundwork for a deeper understanding of the opportunities for supporting sensemaking with computers.

[ This research is joint work with Mark Stefik, Peter Pirolli and Stu Card of Xerox PARC. ]


Daniel Russell, although born and raised in Los Angeles, has fully recovered and is currently in the Advanced Technology Group at Apple Computer. Currently he studies issues of intelligent agent design and sensemaking. Prior to working at Apple, Dan was a Member of the Research Staff at the Xerox PARC in the User Interface Research group working on uses of information visualization techniques. From 1984 through 1991 he led the "Instructional Design Environment" project (with Richard Burton and Tom Moran) to develop a practical computer-aided design and analysis system for supporting ill-structured design tasks. In addition to his work at PARC, he is an associate member of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) in Palo Alto, an adjunct lecturer on the Engineering and Computer Science faculty of the University of Santa Clara and a lecturer in Computer Science at Stanford University.

Dr. Russell received his B.S. in Information and Computer Science from U.C. Irvine, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science from the University of Rochester. While at Rochester, he worked on the neuropsychology of laterality, coordinated motor movements and computer vision. Prior to PARC, Dr. Russell worked in the Xerox Webster Research Center gaining practical experience in printing systems and computer architecture.


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