Close your eyes and think for a minute. Would you rather have an electric shock sometime in the next two minutes, or would you prefer to have a 50% chance of getting a painful zap (as a surprise!) at some point in the next month? If you’re like most people, you’d choose the guaranteed hair-raiser over the ‘maybe later’ scenario. It’s a normal human reaction: we frequently prefer a definitely bad situation over one we can’t control or predict.
Now imagine how often we apply that preference for a negative certainty—the equivalent of the electric shock–over a vague possibility of success, to our business and design decisions.
Why are we so afraid of the unknown? In a business context, it’s partly because we need outcomes, metrics, measurable successes—to create and show our value—and while you can calculate things like cost and risk, you can’t calculate uncertainty. But in a world that’s only getting more complicated, it’s vital that we all learn to live with it.
We’ve written before about how to manage a process full of unknown unknowns, but let’s talk about why it’s so important in the first place.
It’s understandable that we seek safety. We want the best for everyone around us; we want to find ways to plan our way forward, even if we’re looking down a disastrous road. But it’s never been more important to embrace “I don’t know.”
How do you explore possibilities and futures that may not exist yet, if you have certainty? To be more specific, think of a 10-year-old child. What career options will they have when they’re 25? Sure, there will be careers like teachers, nurses, and lawyers, even though their workdays will look very different. But what else will there be—to be, and how do you prepare them for it? We hope it will be even more exciting to be a teacher, nurse, or lawyer in the future, but we can’t only help young people plan for the careers we know will exist, we also need to ready them for the opportunities and challenges we can’t predict. How do we do that?
I don’t know.
But our not-knowing is a start, not an end point.
If you have a map to your destination, you’ll most likely follow it. If you know where you’re going, you don’t always look around along the way. But when you’re a little bit lost, you can explore your surroundings, and start understanding the problem, its landscape, and the deeper context. This is where we often uncover things we didn’t know we were looking for. You don’t get those when you follow a map to the obvious solution, which our fear of uncertainty often compels us to do.
Uncertainty necessitates taking a holistic approach: zooming in and out, finding patterns and connecting the dots between activities and stakeholders. Sometimes it’s necessary to go ‘too far’ to see the edges and boundaries of the problem—the way you’d go to the top of a hill to get the lay of the land, even if it’s a detour.
Without this contextual understanding, there’s a high likelihood that whatever solution you design is going to fail.
As designers, we know we’re not experts on a user’s experience, the user is. Uncertainty allows the designer to act as a facilitator rather than an inventor or director, avoiding assumptions about user behaviour, actions and feelings. It’s up to us to absorb that uncertainty so the user benefits most of all.
By letting users lead us and withholding judgements and assumptions, we’re able to access insights about the needs and behaviours that we don’t know we don’t know. This is crucial in human-centred design: uncovering the expressed and latent needs as a starting point for ideation.
When we start to get to the kinds of unknown unknowns that aren’t even known yet to our users, we can help give them voice and form, creating things they want today, as well as meeting needs below the surface.
Avoiding uncertainty is an energy drain, but almost nothing drains your energy like hanging on for dear life to an idea because you don’t want it to fail. Uncertainty is a chance to embrace being iterative, and allowing yourself to fail early in the process, perhaps even multiple times. It can be a motivator to push forward, prototype and test, and sometimes not pass that test.
Eventually, you need to have enough certainty to create a real product or service, but if you try to do it too early in the process, you can miss your shot at real innovation.
On a global scale, political instability, social inequality, and environmental destruction are truths, and not only do we not have solid solutions, the shapes of the problems are often unclear and constantly changing.
Some of the issues we face now are in part, consequences (whether or not they were intentional) of trying to solve other problems. Things are getting more complex, not less, and we have no reason to believe they’ll get simpler.
So It’s not that you should seek uncertainty, it’s that it’s already found you. But that’s OK.
Design is both a process and it’s an outcome. You don’t want uncertainty as part of your outcome, but as part of your process, it’s valuable.
Instead of being afraid of saying “I don’t know,” it’s safe for us to wade into uncertainty saying, “Let’s find out.”
It’s certainly better than an electric shock to the system.
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