How to Design in Ambiguity

publishedalmost 2 years ago
2 min read

Dear Reader,

Last night at our monthly meetup, a friend of the Fountain, Joshua Stehr, gave us an inspiring talk about early-stage product design work called Designing in Ambiguity.

Josh defined ambiguity as the scenario in design when you have multiple paths in front of you, and there is no single "right" path. You have to make decisions when you don't have all the answers.

I want to zoom in on 3 tools from his talk that stood out to me: Contextual Research, Proper Synthesis, and Opportunity Solution Tree

Contextual Research 👀

The way that Josh's team at Bunch did contextual research was by Josh's words: "Being a little bit creepy."

By that, he did a home visit where he observed people in the target persona. They went to their home and studied them using their early prototype. He watched and didn't say much.

I know many UXers dream about ethnographic field visits, but yes, it's hard to find a customer willing to let you into their home coughcoughexcusescough.

Josh's team found a quick hack by recruiting someone internally that matched their product's persona. What a great way to start doing contextual research!

Learn More: If you want to learn more about field studies, check out the section in GuidetoUXR or go super deep with this book on field studies.

Proper Synthesis 🔗

One of the biggest mistakes I see designers make in research is not doing a proper synthesis phase.

Research isn't just about gathering data. It's also about working with data. That means moving beyond the "what" into the "so what."

Josh's team interviewed me for their app back in the day, and I loved the experience. They shared their screen with me and used Miro to map my responses with post-its even while talking. They even shared my "career journey" map with me afterward. It made a nice little bonus for doing the interview.

To conduct synthesis, you want to sort Post-its with other team members until new ideas spark from the research data. Affinity Mapping with Post-its is a great way to start doing design synthesis.

Without Synthesis, the interview notes sit in Google Drive, and everybody walks away from the research drawing their conclusions. With Synthesis, you get to use your team's collective brain to explore new ideas based on the research.

Synthesis almost feels like magic. Check out this book for a deep dive into Design Synthesis.

Opportunity Solution Tree 🌳

Product leader Teresa Torres created an excellent way to visualize product work in her book, Continuous Discovery Habits. It's something teams everywhere are using to turn outcomes into experiments.

I love Teresa's map because she turns problems into opportunities and solutions into experiments. Josh's team used an Opportunity Solution Tree to keep track of their discovery work. I think designers could learn a lot from these reframes.

Sometimes, business people might think that "problem" work is negative, but "opportunity" work might get better reactions. Check out Teresa's book or this article to learn more about Opportunity Solution Trees.

Want to know about the rest of the talk?

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Until next week, look for ways to learn about customers even when the path is ambiguous!

Jeff Humble
Designer & Co-Founder
The Fountain Institute

P.S. We just announced a FREE event called How to Do UX Research Weekly. Join us on January 26th!

The Fountain Institute

The Fountain Institute is an independent online school that teaches advanced UX & product skills.

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