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Acknowledge the ambiguity

How do we stop ambiguity from blocking design thinking? In this article, Dr Stephan Hitchinsd demonstrates how to acknowledge it and work through it.

We’ve talked a lot about ambiguity in this course. Why? Because it’s one of the biggest barriers we see to people new to design thinking and can be a significant challenge when introducing design thinking to create an innovative team.

There are lots of places for ambiguity to crop up in a design thinking project. Let’s explore them through a fictional case study:

Lily was working on a project as part of a team. The project was to design a website for their small business, but the boss was not very clear about what they wanted. They had given Lily a few ideas, but they were all very vague, and it was difficult for Lily to understand exactly what her boss was looking for.
Lily was feeling frustrated and unsure of how to proceed. She knew that the boss wanted her to implement their vision, but she didn’t have enough information to do so. She was also not confident that the boss’ vision was the right one. So the team decided to engage in some ethnographic research and talk to users.
During the research, Lily found that some users had different needs to others. There didn’t seem an easy way to reconcile the various needs, and Lily wasn’t always 100% confident that she had found the ‘root cause’ of user needs. But the team needed to press on with ideation and prototyping, so they agreed to pause the research and be satisfied with what they had.
The team used Crazy 8s to develop some great ideas and then developed these as prototypes, starting with paper prototypes, and increasing fidelity until they had a fully functioning website. They did user testing and got useful feedback, but Lily wasn’t confident that they had engaged enough potential users in the testing.
When the team presented the final concepts to the boss, they were thrilled with the designs and gave Lily the green light to proceed with releasing the new website.

In this story, Lily faces challenging ambiguity and uncertainty at many stages. So, how can we deal with this and enable our teams to embrace the unknown?

One way is to be conscious of where ambiguity might crop up so that we can acknowledge any discomfort as ambiguity and then force ourselves to get comfortable. We’ll talk about how to get comfortable in the next step.

But first, I want you to review the following graphic, which demonstrates a potential design thinking process. Then, I want you to overlay potential ‘moments of ambiguity’ in the project. If you want, you can print the graphic or copy it into a photo editor, or just sketch out your own version.

Timeline of kick-off – research – insights – ideation – prototyping – test – to enlarge

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