If you’re ever uncertain about how much uncertainty impacts business, just talk to someone who creates content for a living. In the last decade, no sector of the economy has been disrupted more. And the reason the recorded music and print publication businesses have virtually collapsed is well documented – they failed to adapt to sweeping technological change.
The creative services business, by contrast, has a long history of adapting well to change. Media as a delivery mechanism has been in flux for the better part of a century. This has forced purveyors of creative services to innovate and develop new methods, techniques and procedures to deliver creative products for new media. Their success may be because the nature of the creative endeavor requires a certain skill – the ability to assimilate inherent conflict, uncertainty and ambiguity.
Creativity and Ambiguity
If you’re a creative professional, you’ve likely been confronted by ambiguity often. Sometimes your goal has been to extinguish this ambiguity. But more and more, ambiguity is an unavoidable part of design. Things just move too quickly, and are too complex, for full certainty in the practice of design.
Ambiguity may be a condition that persists during the design process, or it may be manifest in design itself. Let’s talk about the former first.
Ambiguity in the design process can take many, many forms. It can arise from a deficit of requirements, a lack of clarity in defining requirements or lack of consensus on what requirements ought to be. It can arise from flawed communication between the customer and the designer, or among different functional groups within a design team. It can arise from project realities, such as lack of time or access to critical information about the project. It can arise from a lack of preparation or research. It can arise from technical complexity. It can arise from choices and tradeoffs designers must make where there’s no clear or obvious solution. It can even arise from process itself, for instance when design iteration introduces ambiguity about requirements that were previously thought to be clear.
Ambiguity in this context is almost always considered a risk that threatens success. But it’s also common and nearly impossible to avoid.
Teams that confront ambiguity must ask themselves how best to manage it, how the negative effects of ambiguity should be mitigated, and if it’s possible to use it to their advantage. Without inevitable ambiguities, if every project were managed as a rigid march to inalienable requirements, the discovery that’s inherent in design wouldn’t have an opportunity to flourish. Innovation can be uncomfortable, but if the end result is a better product, users of the product will benefit.
Now let’s talk about ambiguity that’s manifest in the design itself. This kind of ambiguity actually has much more potential to be positive.
Almost no digital product is created entirely to serve machines. There’s almost always a human end user, even when there are layers of machine interactions between the provider and consumer of a product. And humans are notoriously imprecise. Ambiguity, both of thought and of purpose, is a fundamental facet of the human condition.
Designers of digital products and services increasingly must confront this reality by accommodating human ambiguity in the design itself. This is not just a question of acknowledging the impossibility of predicting all possible use cases. Designing for ambiguity means creating dynamic systems that adapt.
An Example of Designing for Ambiguity
There’s an instructive recent example of designing for ambiguity that could have a profound impact on a common behavior that has become an integral part of most people’s lives – Internet search.
Google recently introduced a product they call Instant. Before Instant, every Internet search engine featured a common basic interface – enter text into a form field and click a button. But what if you didn’t know what you wanted? What if you thought you knew but weren’t sure? In other words, what if your goal was ambiguous?
With a seemingly minor interface tweak – results now populate with each character typed - Google has made the search interaction model profoundly more dynamic. If you goal is ambiguous, no problem, just start typing, and the predictive search engine will start guessing what you want.
This design accommodates ambiguity much more efficiently and holistically than the standard but aging design it replaced. Users can explore the meaning space around what they are seeking instead of having to guess what will produce the correct result. You might find something you didn’t know you were looking for. You might find many things closely related to your original thought that deepen your understanding of it.
Strategies for Accommodating Ambiguity
As a design professional, or an organization that practices design, it pays to embrace ambiguity, or at least confront it head-on. Here are some tips:
- Focus on goals. As a precision discipline, task analysis is comfortingly scientific. But goal-directed design is a better way to accommodate and provide for ambiguities in execution and implementation.
- Iterate a lot. Iterative design surfaces both ambiguities and the design solutions that can accommodate them.
- Launch and layer. As Google Instant shows, there’s always room for innovation – even with the most successful and mature products and services. Incorporate that philosophy into the launch process by getting the product in front of users early so they can show you how to refine it. Expect that the design will not be perfect at launch, provide for continuous improvement.
- Build adaptable systems that don’t force users down a single path.
- What happens offline is just as important as what happens online. When designing, think about the entirety of the interaction, not just the part that the system or application facilitates.
- Design for ecosystems that are composed of many different applications and subsystems. Users don’t always perceive themselves interacting with a specific system as much as they perceive themselves as agents within an ecosystem.
Ambiguity is inevitable and it’s not going away. In fact, it will very likely increase as technology evolves. Innovations like Google Instant will introduce their own new ambiguities that will require adjustment and adaptation. So the cycle continues; innovations will spawn myriad new design challenges, each of which represents an opportunity for a designer comfortable with ambiguity.
How does your organization address ambiguity? We’d love to compare notes, hear feedback or exchange tips in the comments, or on twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook.