UX and designing in ambiguity

We've been thinking about how UX helps us make sense of it all during the design process.

Written by: James Pancaldi
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What is your response when something big, scary and unknown lands on your lap? Do you A: Run, B: Fight, or C: Ask ‘Why?’ until it becomes pocket-sized, fluffy and familiar. My primal instinct says fight until the death, but the day job has taught me that ‘Why?’ is your best weapon choice when it comes to overcoming tough design challenges. User Experience (UX) Design as a process has been specifically, well, designed to help you get to the core of complex problems and navigate ambiguity.

With a focus on research and discovery before you even put pen to paper, UX Design centres decision-making around your audience’s wants and needs as a means to lift the curtain on the (not so) final product. More about the ‘not so’ bit later.

Taking a look at how to design in ambiguity, we’ll be considering UX outcomes rather than outputs - what do we want to achieve as opposed to the artefacts common practice usually dictates?

Think big so that you can think small(er)

First up, immerse yourself in ambiguity - get cosy with it.

We’ve already touched on it but research really is the powerhouse of UX Design. No matter where you are along the design process, the elicitation of audience insight is crucial to ensure you are designing for your users, not yourself.

That isn’t to say that we can’t make decisions without research, but it enables us to make data-driven, data-informed or data-inspired design decisions.

It is that insight which helps you to overcome one of the first hurdles when it comes to designing in ambiguity - our assumptions. A source of bias and false confidence that will end up taking you to the cleaners. Challenging your assumptions narrows your sights on the real problem(s) your audience is faced with and helps you create solutions your users never knew they wanted, but absolutely needed. 

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Once you’ve spoken to Tom, Daniella and Harry; whatever the ‘real problem’ is, try your best to define it. As per every human-centred course under the sun, writing a problem statement is your very own North star, centering your decision making process and providing constraints which inspire creativity. It means that each time you’re unsure of a feature you can ask, ‘Does this feature help solve the problem?’

Hold your horses, though. Whether or not you think it fits the brief, there is no such thing as a bad idea at the beginning (or any stage to be honest) of the design process. Creative approaches to problem solving should facilitate divergent thinking before you start converging on the final solution. That means thinking big and getting down all your ideas before you get the axe out and hold them up against your problem statement.

Everyone's on the same team

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Ok, so we’re a creative agency - we’re meant to have ideas coming out of our ears. Otherwise we’d just be an agency… or, we’d likely have to disband. But that’s not the point. The beauty of UX Design is that everyone is involved in the design process. You’re not alone! Whether you are the client, a developer or a user on the fringe of a particular audience segment, your input is invaluable.

Take every opportunity to bring stakeholders along the journey and create an environment that encourages diversity of thought. Co-creation really is the aim of the game here and that’s what workshops are great for. Whether you’re trying to build a better picture of your audience or prioritising functional requirements, workshops offer a structured format for sharing and learning from one another so that we can fumble through ambiguity together and begin to see the wood for the trees. After all, the curse of knowledge causes us to assume that everyone else knows what you know. 99.99% of the time, this isn’t the case and every opportunity to align stakeholders and agree on where to focus will ultimately contribute to the success of the final product.

Once it’s gone, it’s gone still there…

Ah, the final product. Launched. Checkbox ticked. I don’t think so! Digital certainly isn’t print and it certainly isn’t the end of the story once it’s gone live. UX Design is iterative by nature; meaning that what once was might not be any longer and you might have learned something that affects your design.

You can do all the research you like but once it’s out in the real world it’s another story. Let’s not forget, too, that your audience’s wants and needs will change over time - that’s life. The adoption of an always-on approach offers an adaptable, test and learn model that takes advantage of the data and insight that awaits post-launch. Whilst front-loading your research and testing is commonplace in UX, applying a product mindset that allows for tweaking and tinkering your product will soften the anxiety around ambiguity.

Whether you are the client, a developer or a user on the fringe of a particular audience segment, your input is invaluable.

A chair is a chair (most of the time)

Let’s get back to the twisted fight or flight analogy - know when to pick your fights. Sometimes things don’t have to be as big, scary, and unknown as you might think.

You can sit on whatever you like, but a chair is a ‘chair’ because designers have reused a similar solution to a common design challenge and so, users recognise them as such. Although an example of a physical product design pattern; as best practices continue to emerge in the digital world, users are familiar with the affordances and functionality of particular User Interface (UI) elements. You only need to go as far as ordering up a burger menu.

Digital isn’t so new anymore and even if you are determined to design a unique UI, which may seem like a daunting task, don’t be afraid to lean into best practice, heuristics, and established design patterns. These elements will only ensure the usability of your interface and provide the foundations upon which you can add creative flare. 

UX Design is the not-so-secret sauce that will help you identify the gaps and opportunities to add that flare; making sense of ambiguity and defining constraints, yet promising impactful and engaging digital experiences.

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