This month, one theme kept on coming up, on multiple occasions. Ambiguity in the Design Process, and what is the role of Designers in clarifying, removing or just using it, to move the solution process forward. In the past I have written about Business Skills, and have alluded to the roles a Designer should tackle in order to make the Design Thinking process effective (namely planning and communicating effectively). The reason why Ambiguity has become a staple in a lot of discussions, also ties with the sense of ownership and prioritization, particularly when it comes to Product Design and the different stakeholders that are involved in it. This article aims to focus on how a Design Process in general and Design Professionals in particular, can thrive and utilize this type of variable to deliver solutions that are quantifiably successful, while integrated in a team environment.
- What is Ambiguity in the Design Process?
In more than one occasion I have had the opportunity to ask across multiple teams and organizations, how does the genesis of a feature or product start. Does it occur through surveys, or customer support analysis, or even understanding market/industry trends? It’s always an interesting question, since it opens the door to understand if the concept of Innovation and Design Thinking is a marriage of the Design Group and Product Ownership Group, or solely driven by one of them within a particular organization. There’s no right or wrong answer of course, but obviously depending on the outcome, a Design professional can start clarifying on how his/her role can be integrated into the process that is currently being implemented. In my personal career path, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on very diverse teams, some where Product Owners had the onus of uncovering the research process, and document what was going to be a product or feature (with documentation including details as granular as user scenarios, to further clarify the intent of the product/feature). Others, where the Design group was effectively the driving force in product genesis, there was a definition of documentation that included market analysis (profitability margins, scaling, trends, key players, technology adoption), clients, users & personas, among many other factors (localization for instance), process all this information, and effectively make decisions on what new features and products to focus on. Both processes did produce successful and sustainable results (measurable in terms of KPIs such as number of downloads for applications, volume of sales, client retention and adoption), but as a Design Professional, where does the satisfaction lie, and how does Ambiguity surface in these engagements/scenarios. I should preface the following statements, by acknowledging that all processes are rewarding, if the Designer understands the constraints, and has a valid method to tackle the issues that are presented.
Ambiguity is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, as “a word or expression that can be understood in two or more possible ways :an ambiguous word or expression”. In terms of the Design Process, this can actually allude to the fact that at the genesis of the process, there’s uncertainty, multiple directions & variables and not a specific pathway in which the teams need to go (if Product Design is akin to going down the Rabbit Hole, then in this case, the field is littered with multiple ones). Design Professionals, are now more than ever, multi-labored team members, who function as catalysts, communicators, facilitators, researchers, in a word, technological-thinkers-alchemists, whose goal is primarily to create clarity (another Design Principle), that effectively unveils directions in which a Design Thinking process can go. These directions are a result of research of multiple natures (from metrics, customer support, competitive analysis — direct and indirect, usability testing, and from industry trends, cost effectiveness, resource allocation, integration into business and marketing/brand strategy), but also of communicating with different teams, stakeholders, users, clients, and being immersed in the business/industry, in order to properly be able to remove the haze of uncertainty, and incentivize participation. Ambiguity can serve the purpose of allowing a wide canvas to be brought forth, but if Design Professionals aren’t able to use it as a giant moodboard where you aggregate, compile, select, and then draw a pathway with a direction to measurable success, you’ll be effectively feeding off into a quicksand of ideas, where the outcome is invariably products/features that never solve much, since they never really asked a few essential questions — what are we doing and who are we doing it for. Much like storytelling, understand the canvas, build an arc, and make the journey as compelling as possible.
2.How is Ambiguity Removed and Should it be Removed? Ambiguity is always going to be present in any process that is tackled. The challenge is to position it in a manner where it’s usable, and where it doesn’t become a gap that sucks all initiative, innovation and eventually successful execution of the project. The Design Thinking process, and Design Professionals with a structured methodology, have long recognized that the best way to deal with Ambiguity is through Flexibility, and by integrating this factor into the overall discoverability and execution pathway. What this translates effectively to Design Professionals, can be summarized in the following statement: Research/Convene/Listen/Document/Prepare. By understanding the problem, from different perspectives, and not from a single point of view, there is further opportunity for Designers to make use of their diverse skills (communication of course), including their strategic thinking process, and play an effective role in defining what the product direction is going to be. It’s our role to build the relationships, to seek the information, to jumpstart this ingenious engine, one that hopefully will be acknowledged, and therefore easier to dip into on multiple occasions. Remember that ambiguity isn’t a fearful opponent or something exacting looming ahead, quite the opposite. Ambiguity can be the terrain to explore, to seek out new directions. And yes, at times ambiguity can generate errors, discrepancies and even false assumptions. But even in the most dire circumstances, all situations are valid ones, where Designers and professionals in general can learn from (if they choose to do so, and grow as individuals and professionals). Now more than ever, is time to leverage insights, information sources, and carve out a path that acknowledges differences and variables, including ambiguity.
I’ll summarize this month’s article with the following statement from Sigmund Freud: “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate Ambiguity”. Design Professionals, have the opportunity to leverage this ambiguity, and incorporate it into their methods, without causing much fear or uncertainty. Carving out a path, having the tools (both in the shape of an effective Design Thinking process and effective software tools) and the teams to go along in that journey, makes all the difference in achieving that desired success story.