Embracing ambiguity: Ambiguity as an emerging design pattern
Contemporary phisical-digital ecosystems surpass our capability to fully understand and predict their behavior: openness and unpredictability are emerging patterns challenging the design of today. Embracing ambiguity — embracing the possibility of not understanding exactly how the pieces fit together — means designing systems that surpass our expectations of them; it means leaving the idea of the information architect as a producer of well-defined artifacts and embracing on the contrary that of the information architect as an enabler.
The systems that comprise our increasingly connected physical environments are, for the moment, often broader than we can understand fluidly. Embracing ambiguity – embracing the possibility of not understanding exactly how the pieces fit together, but trusting them to come together because they are rooted in deep layers of perception and understanding – opens up the possibility of designing systems that surpass our expectations of them. [...]
Embracing ambiguity is hard. Especially if you’re doing work for someone else – and even more so if that someone else is not a fan of ambiguity (and this includes just about everyone on the client side of the design relationship). By all means, be specific whenever possible. But when you’re designing for a range of contexts, users, and uses – and especially when those design solutions are in an emerging space – specificity can artificially limit a design.
[...] This allows us the possibility of designing for systems which fit together with themselves (even though we can’t see all the parts) and with us (even though there’s much about our own behavior we still don’t understand), potentially reshaping the way we perceive and act in our world as a result (Fitzgerald).
It’s what Andy Fitzgerald writes in his enlightening article Architecting the connected world.
We introduced a similar take in Pervasive Information Architecture, and we coupled that with the idea of “imprecise design” (Chapter 3). Reading how Fitzgerald makes it a key point of his examination only confirms this as an emerging trend and a challenge many designers will have to face in the future. Quoting Lawrence Lessig, we argued
the general shift from a read-only (RO) culture to a read-write (RW) culture [...] a change in the way users participate in the process, a move from passive consumers to active coproducers. [...]
What we can see emerging though is a tad more radical, and probably moving beyond user-centered design into participatory design territory: a cocreated information architecture, a crowd-sourced pervasive information architecture, an entire ubiquitous ecology where designers and users share the responsibilities of creation. [...]
There is less precise control, that’s for sure, but a far wider imprecise opportunity to shape the use and reuse of vast ecologies of artifacts. It’s all the difference between bidimensional Flatland and four-dimensional Spaceland, or Pervasiveland.
[...] the information architect lays down the fundamental bricks and connection rules, but users shape and reshape the building according to their needs, paths, and behaviors. It’s again nothing more than the idea of users as wranglers Sterling (2005) talks about [...]
In a way, we could say that pervasive information architectures cannot be designed from top to bottom by a single talented individual or by a dedicated small group of professionals. They cannot be designed in one go, as well. They are complex, iterated systems, and the role of the designer is mainly that of the enabler. The information architect provides the rules of the game, the board, and a little coffee. The users play the game in its infinite variations, building their strategies, their paths, and their experience. And enjoy the coffee (Pervasive Information Architecture, pp. 208-210).
Adam Greenfield perfectly synthesized this structural change in his Thesis 41 for his 2006 book Everyware:
Before they are knit together, the systems that comprise everyware may appear to be relatively conventional, with well-understood interfaces and affordances. When interconnected, they will assuredly interact in emergent and unpredictable ways (Greenfield).
Is designers as enablers — and not as producers — what is coming next?
February 27th, 2014