Venkatesh Rao, discussing the crafts traditionally involved in understanding systems, makes the distinction between map-making and sense-making:
Map-makers try to make one map that accounts for everything they see happening to things they care about. Then they try to craft narratives on that one map. Maps can be wrong or incomplete, but they aren’t usually incoherent or entropic, because they represent a single, totalizing, absolutely interested point of view, and a set of associated epistemic, ontological, and aesthetic preferences.
Sense-makers on the other hand, try to come at the territory using multiple maps, as well as direct experience. Theirs is not a disinterested point of view, but a relative, multi-interested point of view. We want various points of view to agree in a certain limited sense, lending confidence to our hope that we’ve made sense of reality through triangulation.
(Map-makers might be more adequately characterized as map-users.)
Design research is very much a sense-making operation that aims to establish a new map. The clients of design research are in possession of an outdated, and possibly biased, map.
Research is often presented as a reality check, with field studies helping debunk and update old maps. But entrenched map-makers need more than a check from reality, they need an injection of possibilities. A multiplication of the point of views, through direct ethnographic studies, social sciences, experimentations. A good research narrative is the resolution of a controversy, in the form of a new map.
Rao, on what makes an existing map cease to work:
Things stop making sense when it sounds like the different maps are about different territories altogether, and aren’t even talking about the same story. When that happens, sense-making fragments. Instead of an assemblage of almost co-extensive stories that refer to the same assumed underlying reality territory, it begins to seem as though entire diverging stories are playing out, which are only incidentally connected at the margins.
He calls the structural divergence of point of views a “weirding”. Designers who have striven to reconcile a business’ interest with individual needs and interests know this kind of divergence very well. Another divergence currently getting exposure is the one between caring for individual experiences and caring for environmental sustainability. Different maps, different ways of looking at the world, previously not distinguished, now irreconcilable.