Working With Ambiguity

Design requires comfort with ambiguity; making progress even when requirements are unclear, uncertain, or unspecified. Good designers are unfazed by lack of clarity, without being foolhardy. They understand that their job is to make the possible tangible. If possibilities were already evident, there would be no need for their help; others would simply make the thing.

But possibilities are never definite. Nobody has perfect clairvoyance. Stakeholders discuss the new thing conceptually, but what will it actually be? They don’t know. Yes, it’ll be a user interface for a new medical imaging system. But that statement is an abstraction. There are hundreds — if not thousands — of decisions to be made before such a thing is concrete enough to be built. Making those decisions is the part of the designer’s remit.

Not that they’re ultimately the designer’s responsibility; stakeholders must ultimately decide whether or not the designer’s choices meet requirements. (The logo may indeed need to be bigger.) Articulating the concept with artifacts that help stakeholders understand what they’re actually talking about is, by definition, an act of reducing ambiguity.

Making sense of ambiguous situations requires having the right attitude. It calls for self-confidence, playfulness, and entrepreneurial drive. Although these traits can be improved, they come more naturally to some designers than others. Some folks are less willing than others to be made vulnerable.

That said, working successfully with ambiguity is not just about attitude; context also plays an important part. The problem with uncertainty is that you may get things wrong; the thing you produce may be partially (or wholly) inadequate. Time is lost. Money is lost. What then? What are the consequences?

Some project environments are more tolerant of mistakes than others. Because they’re the ones making things tangible and they often lack political power in their organizations, designers can easily become scapegoats for bad directions. Environments that punish mistakes will make exploration difficult.

Some problem domains also lend themselves more to making mistakes than others. The consequences for failing to capture the essence of a new brand are different than the consequences for failing to keep a bridge upright. It’s more challenging to deal with ambiguity when designing high-stakes systems, such as those that put lives are at risk.

Ultimately, design calls for working with ambiguity. This requires a combination of the right attitude within the right context. When considering your work, how easy is it for you to deal with unclear or uncertain directions? What are the consequences of getting things wrong? And more importantly, what can you do about these things?