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Information collections are growing faster than our ability to handle them. How does one make sense of it all? Sensemaking is the term we use to describe the process of working with a collection of information to create a deeper understanding of it. Itís what one does to understand the key ideas hidden in a wealth of data. For nearly any non-trivial example, sensemaking tasks quickly turn into representation creation (even something as simple as notetaking) and the manipulation of data by the tools in use.

As an example of sensemaking, a common task is to quickly create an analysis of a limited domain. Professional analysts might be asked to create a summary of the political status for the city of Katmandu. The analystís job is to collect as many documents as possible, read and understand the material, note questions, search for new documents, and form a picture in mind of the information at hand. In professional settings, such collections created for analysis can easily contain tens of thousands of documents by drawing on proprietary and open-source resources. Even less intensive tasks might use around 100 information sources, and yet still be difficult for a reader to see through to the essentials of the domain.

Similarly, our personal information searches are not always simple. We often start with one task, and then our search evolves as we learn more about the subject. A desire to find information about knee pain might turn into a search for information about arthritis or the origins of nerve damage. We donít know where we are going until we educate ourselves and become oriented in the topical landscape. In real tasks, seldom can the entire information retrieval problem be addressed by one query and a single document retrieved. Although perfect precision is a laudable goal, given the shifting nature of search, itís not clear that perfect precision would improve the user's overall performance.

Our sensemaking work is about understanding the interaction of the cognitive dimensions (how do people think about and understand complex sets of information) and the technology side (what tools can we build to help). This work also draws on strands of other work that is ongoing in the team, especially our ethnographic studies of system administrators and eye tracking to understand how people read and use web sites.

Additional information:

Sensemaking Image

Figure: The sensemaking process is a multi-pass, iterative behavior of people as they collect and organize information to understand a complex domain.

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