On designing in ambiguity

Bala Pillai, a friend of mine from Malaysia, sent me an interesting post that spurred a thought on the design work that I’ve been doing lately on Flock.
As an advocate for Asian economic development, he proposes that Asia is no longer “the producer of quantum inventions” because of “Good vs. Devil” religions that measure in quantities of right and wrong or black and white, which, he suggests, have lead to a certain intellectual inertness.

“…folks in Malaysia for example, don’t even realise that nearly anything significant we use, is conceived, designed or created overseas. And it is in conceiving, designing and creating that the most fun, the greatest bucks, the best jobs are. (And the shame of it is that Malays who are overall known for their creativity and imagination pay heavily for this.)”

In essense, because of this rigidity of thought, it is harder to achieve an objective perspective, especially about oneself or one’s work. Therefore, self-appraisals tend to favor those aspects which reenforce the ways in which your actions are consistent with your dominant beliefs. If this were not the case, the cognitive dissonance between objective fact and your subjective fiction would become overwhelming!
However, Bala makes an astute observation about the recent capitalist successes of the Chinese:

“If not for non-religious Chinese risk-taking and entrepreneurship in ambiguity, [Asia would] be in lots more worse shape then we are.”

What’s so curious about this is how embracing ambiguity encourages a certain kind of creative acuity that leads to intellectual dexterity to see around problems in novel ways. It dawned on me that some of the struggles I’ve had recently with design decisions in Flock have stemmed from my failure to use the ambiguity of the problems as opportunities to do something new or interesting. With limited time, I would float back to known or established solutions that didn’t always feel right but would seem to follow existing design paradigms sufficiently.

Consider, for example, Flock’s initial blog manager. I followed Thunderbird or Outlook’s models of having the accounts on the left, messages listed on the right and the composition area in what is normally reading area. This design was fundamentally weak because it relied on an existing solution grafted onto an entirely different problem. Once I accepted the ambiguity of the situation — exacerbated by the numerous solutions available for blogging — I realized that what we needed was something that didn’t encourage the management of your blog, but rather the act of composing and creating.
And with that, a solution emerged which will make it into the next iteration of our browser. One closing thought, again by way of Bala:

“Great work is done by people who are not afraid to be great,” Flores says.

The World According to Flores exists in three realms. The first is the smallest — and the most self-limiting: What You Know You Know. It is a self-contained world, in which people are unwilling to risk their identity in order to take on new challenges. A richer realm is What You Don’t Know — the realm of uncertainty, which manifests itself as anxiety or boredom. Most things in life belong to this realm: what you don’t know about your future, your health, your family. People are always trying to merge this second area into the realm of What You Know You Know — in order to avoid uncertainty, anxiety, and boredom. But it is the third realm of Flores’s taxonomy to which people should aspire: What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know. To live in this realm is to notice opportunities that have the power to reinvent your company, opportunities that we’re normally too blind to see. In this third realm, you see without bias: You’re not weighed down with information. The language of this realm is the language of truth, which requires trust.

Fernando Flores, The Power of Words

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Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

One thought on “On designing in ambiguity”

  1. having used most of the web based rss readers and the desktop based one, I have to agree: none of them work well. altough searchfox is at least nice in a way of having it sort by algorithim my feeds then linking that feed into something like FoF or Thunderbird so I can kinda par down stories into issues instead of genre. in my opinion the best blog reader is still stereotypography.com
    just headlines broken into 3 columons and the ability to switch through lists. it’s to bad it only carries design news. hope your blog reader in flock turns out well.


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