Wicked Ambiguity and User Experience


Following are the video, slides, description, and transcript for my keynote talk, Wicked Ambiguity. See the acknowledgments for more information about my sources, influences, and the people who helped me along the way.




Wicked Ambiguity and User Experience

How do you solve the world’s hardest problems? And how would you respond if they’re unsolvable? As user experience professionals, we’re focused on people who live and work in the here and now. We dive into research, define the problem, break down silos, and focus on people’s intent to create solutions.

But how does our UX work change when a project lasts not for one year, or even 10 years, but for 10,000 years or more? Enter the “Wicked Problem,” or situations with so much ambiguity, complexity, and interdependencies that—by definition—they can’t be solved.

Using real-world examples from NASA’s Voyager program, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, and other long-term UX efforts, we’ll talk about the challenges of creating solutions for people whom we’ll never know in our lifetimes. The ways we grapple with ambiguity give us a new perspective on our work and on what it means to build experiences that last.



Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Welcome to Wicked Ambiguity, a journey through time and space spanning 2.8 trillion years and 1.2 quadrillion miles.

This talk isn’t about me or my work. It’s about you and why you matter.

I’m dedicating this talk not to J. Alfred Prufrock, but instead to Leonard Nimoy. While he’s best known for “Star Trek,” you may not know that Leonard was also the host of TV’s “In Search Of…,” in which he looked for answers to long-standing mysteries of the unknown.

And you know what? You do that, too. We’re all just nerds looking for answers—and Leonard helped make it safe for us to be geeks, to be introverts, and to be fascinated by the universe that surrounds us.

“We’re all stories in the end,” (source) after all, so I won’t say rest in peace, but rather, “Live long and prosper.”

About Our Journey

Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.

I’m your host for the next hour while we boldly go through the vast reaches of time and space. I’ll make sure none of us gets lost and everyone makes it back. But fair warning: the people who return won’t be the same as the ones who leave.

Got somewhere else to be? No worries! You can get these slides now at bit.ly/raycats—don’t worry, I promise that’ll make more sense by the end. Note, you need to use all lower-case letters or the link won’t work.

Let’s start with a memory; most things in the past do.

Do you remember being a child and your parents telling you, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.” (source) But you really thought they were lying just to make you feel better because it was dark, you were scared, and you didn’t know what to expect?

Kind of like in this keynote? Well, then. “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.”

It’s a story we tell to project confidence and security. But it’s a hard promise to make. We can’t even predict the location and movements of a single atom—let alone complex things like world events, the stock market, or whether it’ll be nice out on Thursday.

So maybe, just maybe, everything’s not going to be fine. What then?

This symbol is taken from one of the Pioneer satellites launched by NASA in the ‘60s. It was also used on Voyager, the furthest man-made object from the Earth, spinning from out of the blue and into the black.

Today we’ll talk about this symbol and what it means. We’ll also cover a lot of science and math, but almost no science fiction—even though the ideas we’re discussing are fantastical. But other than quotes from books and TV shows like “Doctor Who,” everything you’re about to see is real. It’s true. And it’s troubling.

Some of you will leave today saying “This talk has NOTHING to do with user experience!” Others will say, “This talk has EVERYTHING to do with user experience!”

Guess what? You’re both right.

The Shape Under The Sheet

You know this story—it’s the story of a nerd.

Stephen King once wrote about an idea he calls “The shape under the sheet.” (source)

He says that when you’re alone at night, lying awake, and it’s cold, and the wind is blowing, and the house is creaking… the shape you see at the foot of your bed, the shape under the sheet, could be just about anything. Anything at all.

Except that we know it’s our body making that shape. But we don’t—because for a moment, our fear creates ambiguity as to what’s real and what’s not. That’s the nature of fear: the unknown. It makes us want to drop everything and run away as fast as we can.

T.S. Eliot wrote about this, too, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” You know this story—it’s the story of a nerd.

In the poem, Prufrock is filled with indecision and anxiety. He asks: “Do I dare disturb the universe? Do I dare to eat a peach?” (source)

That’s our special nature as people who do UX: we dare. Every damn day.

The Divisions That Unite UX

We solve our problems together—or not at all.

But let’s shift to talk about real problems. What’s the biggest problem you can think of in UX?

Well, I know one that we talk about all the time… everyone thinks we’re just a bunch of creatives! They think we’re just here to make things look pretty. They just see our work on the surface, not our deeper work in the system.

After all, there’s so much more we can do than just make things look good, right?

Maybe you’re really a designer, creating new experiences and solving hard problems by focusing on people’s intent. And I KNOW all the designers in the room are cringing at my use of Comic Sans. Is it intentional? Or was I just lazy? AMBIGUITY.

Or maybe you’re a developer, engineering sites, apps, and features—the systems and engineering that drive our experiences. Or a researcher, asking the hardest questions and practicing empathy to discover how people live and work, think and believe. Or an information architect, structuring data for the interfaces that connect people with systems. Or a content strategist, working with language, interfaces, systems, people, and the connections—and especially the disconnections—between them.

Or hey, maybe you really are a creative—that’s great, too! It’s not a dirty word.

Listen: I know this seems like a problem. And I know it’s something we spend a lot of time talking about. And we use all of these titles to frame our work, to share our impact. But I don’t think that our differences matter all that much. Because we’re bound together by something else, a greater force.

We dare. We dare to stand united against ambiguity. That’s really what everyone here has in common. Abby Covert, President of the Information Architecture Institute, says that “we make the unclear clear.” (source)

That’s our secret strength. So forget all these divisions. We solve our problems together—or not at all. (source)

Wicked Problems

It was as if the desert swallowed up entire villages while I watched.

But what about the shape beneath the sheet? What if you’re faced with a problem that’s so hard and so complex that you can’t solve it no matter what you do? What if you encountered a problem that was so massively interconnected that you weren’t even sure how to define it?

Here we face different challenges—they’re called “Wicked Problems”.

Wicked problems appear throughout all societies, cultures, and history. Simply put, they’re a special class of problem that we can’t solve because they have no final solutions.

In 1973, the social scientists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the term “Wicked Problem.” (source) They found that wicked problems are prohibitively expensive to take on, they’re impossible to test, and the symptoms and factors of every wicked problem are, in fact, wicked problems themselves. They resist definition because each one is essentially unique, each has constantly changing factors and requirements, and each has, at best, temporary mitigations that can’t be measured in terms of right or wrong… but only better or worse.

Let’s look at an example of a problem in the field of public health. This is a map of London in 1854. And like all maps, it tells us a story. This is the story of the cholera outbreak—hundreds of people were dying and no one knew how the disease spread.

Let’s zoom in a bit here just to the neighborhood where the outbreak occurred. Those black squares represent the cases of cholera. These yellow circles show all the public water pumps.

A doctor named—and this is true—John Snow linked the disease to contamination of the water at the pumps. He did this with statistics, using math to determine the cause and location of the infection. Once he made that link, increased sanitation measures were implemented and the disease died out.

Now you might say, “You know nothing, John Snow,” but I’ll tell you what: John Snow knew enough to save London and invent the field of epidemiology at the same time.

But even so, this is what Horst and Rittel call a “tame problem.” Sure, it was hard to figure out, but it has isolatable factors and a clear solution. A lot of us grapple with tame problems every day. But when it comes to truly wicked problems, we’re talking about something entirely different.

Take last year’s Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which later spread to many countries all over the world, including this one. There’s no simple solution here. As population increases, as resources become scarce, as wars break out, people are forced into developing lands that were once wild. And sometimes, they find disease waiting for them.

When this happens, there are unintended consequences: not just disease outbreaks, but struggles over territory and the destruction of habitats, leaving them barren. So people are forced to further explore and develop wild lands in order to find ever-decreasing natural resources. I saw this for myself when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa back in the ‘90s. It was as if the desert swallowed up entire villages while I watched.

You see, wicked problems perpetuate themselves. They aren’t just challenging, they have no final solutions. They don‘t just link to other issues—they’re massively interdependent. We can’t solve them, but we have to try. And when we try, we have no right to be wrong.

Let’s examine a few common wicked problems—we can find them everywhere. And they’ve been around for a long time because, by their very nature, they hide in plain sight.

Most of our wars are the result of wicked problems.

They’re present in urban planning, including the gentrification crisis faced by people in every large city around the world.

When people occupying their homes are pushed out—no matter by what measure, from economic to political—our “War on Poverty” begins to look much more like a real war than a helping hand. And whether we intend it or not, gentrification increases the gap between rich and poor while decreasing the diversity of our communities.

And if we take gentrification to its ultimate conclusion, then we’re left with this: a shantytown outside of the city where the poor are trapped without access to social services or any hope for advancement. How can we make sure that all people earn a living wage and have access to proper housing, food, safe communities, health care, education and—most importantly—opportunity?

Wicked problems are also present in our ongoing “War on Drugs.” Here we see militarized officers conducting an early morning raid of a home where drugs and weapons were later found.

And yet we’ve made little progress in our global War on Drugs, curtailing neither drug trade or use. But we’ve spent billions if not trillions of dollars trying. Worse still, we’ve imprisoned millions of people for what are largely non-violent, victimless crimes. These seized bricks of cocaine represent the smallest portion of the drug’s manufacture, trade, distribution, and use. All tactics, no strategy.

These problems pull at us, too. I know that because they pull at me.

But, of course, most of our wars are the result of wicked problems. Although they’re relics today, these howitzers were used by armies fighting in Europe during World War I over a hundred years ago. When we see them in a black and white photo, it’s easy to dismiss them and their terrifying destructive force. But our wars over politics, religion, and resources continue to this day.

These soldiers in the Ukraine wear no national flag, but they were still part of Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea just last year. It’s war in everything but name—a secret war.

We wage war on our planet as well. Just last year, scientists found that our glaciers are now melting at such a fast rate that we have absolutely no hope of stopping or reversing the damage. No matter what you believe about its causes, climate change will ensure that the world our children grow up in will be very different from “our world. Our time. Family time.” (source)

We pull at these problems, trying to work apart their knots. But for every strand we grasp, another slips through our fingers. We implement some solution and tie it off with a bow, only to see it unraveled by deeper, interconnected challenges. Complexity after complexity, constraint within constraint.

It’s frustrating. But more than that, it’s heartbreaking. It’s tragic. Because these problems pull at us, too. I know that because they pull at me. (source) They pull at my strings. They make me want to give up.

That’s the poison of wicked problems—they sap our will to dare. Because when we encounter the shape beneath the sheet, we know it’s us. We know the shape of these problems because it’s our shape.

Communicating With Aliens

But why stop with setting our planet on fire? There are so many other planets out there!

I’m telling you about these wicked problems because I believe that we face them in our work, too. So today we’re going to look at two of them.

The first is how we should communicate with aliens. I told you there was going to be a few fantastical moments, didn’t I? But we won’t be talking science fiction—only science and a bit of history.

We started with a memory. Now let’s look further into the past. In the 19th century, many people believed that intelligent beings might live on the Moon, Mars, and Venus. But we couldn’t travel to other planets yet, so a few people suggested ways to communicate with those beings even before radio was invented.

Our story starts in the simplest of places: the desert.

In the 1800s, Joseph Johann Littrow, an Austrian astronomer, proposed using the vast Sahara Desert as a sort of blackboard for writing messages that could be seen by aliens passing by our planet. He proposed digging giant trenches to create shapes and letters nearly 20 miles wide. Then kerosene would be poured into the trenches and set on fire at night. This would create a huge visual message that could be seen from the sky. Using this method, a different message could be created every night. It could even serve as an advertisement of sorts.

But why stop with setting our planet on fire? There are so many other planets out there!

Charles Cros, an inventor, was convinced that pinpoints of light observed on Mars were, in fact, the lights of large cities. So he spent years of his life trying to get funding for a giant mirror that he’d use to signal the Martians. The mirror would be focused on the Martian desert, where the intense, reflected beam of sunlight could be used to burn messages into the Martian sands.

Now instead of just using our own planet as a canvas for messages, we could use other planets, too. I mean, come on—what self-respecting aliens wouldn’t want us to get in touch by SETTING THEM ON FIRE?!

By the way, I want to take a moment here to say something. All these people throughout history who wanted to burn shit up? They were MEN. All men. Every single one of them. Men!

Later, scientists stopped setting things on fire just long enough to ask whether there were actually any aliens to communicate with in the first place. In 1961, astronomer and physicist Frank Drake came up with this equation. The Drake Equation deals in probabilities as a way of estimating the number of advanced civilizations in the universe with whom we could communicate. After all, probabilities rely on the same kind of math that John Snow used to save London from cholera.

And while it’s imprecise and full of holes, the Drake Equation served as a catalyst to get scientists talking about the possibility of communicating with extraterrestrials. Its impact isn’t in solving the problem, but in sparking creativity in our approach.

Each symbol in the equation represents a variable, such as the likelihood that an alien civilization has invented radio. So if you plug in the lowest possible number for each variable, you’ll find that the number of advanced civilizations in our Universe is very, very low, indeed: 8×10^(-20). That’s a zero followed by a decimal point and then there’s 19 more zeroes… then a tiny little 8. This pretty much means that we’re all alone in the Universe.

But if you’re feeling optimistic and plug in the highest numbers? You’ll find that our Universe is rich with life and advanced civilizations. There are over 36 million of them! Wooooo, party! But, uhhhh… B.Y.O.B. You don’t want to get stuck with the bill for 36 million cocktails. Trust me on this.

So: what lies between those two figures? What makes up the gap? We don’t know.

This image is taken from the plaques on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft. And that symbol I showed you earlier appears on the left. Here we see a man and woman, a hydrogen atom, our sun’s location in the universe, the look of the Pioneer spacecraft, our solar system, and even the planet where we live. What a rich message, so full of science and humanity.

It was designed by a young scientist you might have heard of named Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan, as you know, turned out to be one of the greatest UX professionals who ever lived, even though he was never formally trained in it.

Both Sagan and Drake would continue to use math as a form of communication, layering data on top of data like a palimpsest. Here we see a binary message they sent from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974. I’ve placed the binary numbers from that message horizontally. If you squint, you might be able to see shapes emerge from the 1s set amidst the background of 0s. Let me help with that.

That’s better. Drake and Sagan intended this message to be as simple and human as possible. See if you can make out any of these things: the numbers 1 to 10; our solar system; a human figure and our DNA; the shape of a radio telescope. It’s all in there. But will aliens be able to make sense of it?

Only the smallest of scopes can inspire the heights of empathy.

Later, in 1977, came the two Voyager probes with their Golden Records. They contain sounds, images, and other data that show the diversity of life and culture on Earth. The Voyager probes are the furthest man-made objects from Earth, about 1.2 quadrillion miles away from us. The scientists who built them solved the tame problems of engineering so well that we’re still in contact with them and they’re still sending us data.

The golden record on Voyager contains images, natural sounds, and music from all around the world, as well as instructions for playback, which are etched onto its surface. Also on the outside, you can again see the symbol showing the position of our sun along with that same schematic of the hydrogen atom. They’re like our calling cards, showing everyone how nerdy we are about astronomy and chemistry. But that’s just the outside of the record. Inside, the layers of data are far deeper than in previous messages.

Among all that data on Voyager is this: the brain waves of a young woman named Ann Druyan. She was a member of the project team. This EEG recording of her brainwaves was made right after she and Carl Sagan told each other that they were in love with one another. After the recording, Druyan said that her sub-conscious was “buzzing with the euphoria of the Great Idea of True Love.” (source)

The Great Idea of True Love! So one of the most powerful feelings we’ve transmitted out into the depths of the cosmos is also one of the most personal, the most intimate. It’s not meaningful because it represents everyone on Earth; it’s meaningful because it’s a connection between just two of them. It’s beauty isn’t in scale, but in its uniquity. Only the smallest of scopes can inspire the heights of empathy.

But will an alien civilization understand? Will they be able to decode and replay the messages? Will they have any meaning? And what action might they take in response?

So many unanswered questions. What’s the probability that an alien civilization will succeed at solving these problems when we can’t solve them ourselves? And so we’re challenged by the unknown. We find the shape beneath the sheet in the signals we send beyond the stars.

And while we might laugh at the historical efforts to create that link, those early scientists answered the call of duty of UX: to stand united against ambiguity, to make the unclear clear.

They dared.

Nuclear Semiotics

If you think this keynote is dragging on, that’s nothing compared to the half-life of Uranium.

So! We’ve looked more than 200 years into the past. Now we’ll leap ahead almost 3 trillion years into the future. “Hang on to your butts!

We’re going to see how UX designers are trying to solve the wicked problem of nuclear waste—and how to communicate the threat it poses to future generations.

Whether they’re used as weapons or as fuel to create energy, nuclear materials leave behind waste products. This waste is dangerous because it emits radiation that destroys all life as we know it. And yet you can’t build weapons or generate power without it. And using nuclear power keeps us from extracting and burning fossil fuels that pollute our environment, causing climate change.

But wait, what’s this? See? Even the barrel itself is feeling conflicted! So how should we communicate the dangers of nuclear waste to future generations?

This is the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. It was intended to serve as a storage site for nuclear waste after a 2002 act of Congress. It’s total estimated cost was $90 billion. However, it’s since been shuttered and research continues to find and develop a new site for waste storage.

Now this nuclear waste is so dangerous to life that it must be stored securely in a remote, shielded location deep beneath the Earth. Here we see the plan for the Yucca Mountain repository and its three bays where waste was to be stored. So how long would that all that waste need to remain hidden and undisturbed in order to become safe? Let’s find out.

Meet Plutonium-239. It’s a radioactive element commonly used as a nuclear fuel. It has a half-life of just over 24,000 years. This means that it burns off one half of its dangerous radioactivity over that amount of time. Every 24,000 years, it burns off another half and so on. Let’s say that to become even remotely stable and safe, a chunk of Plutonium-239 needs to pass through four of these half-life cycles, meaning just shy of 100,000 years. Give or take—I mean, what’s a few millennia between friends, am I right?

On the other hand, Uranium-235, another common element in fuel and weaponry, has a far, far greater half-life. Over 700 million years. It takes Uranium-235 over 700 million years to burn off just one-half of its radioactivity. If you go through four of those cycles, you get 2.8 trillion years.

2.8 trillion years! So, my friends and neighbors, if you think this keynote is dragging on… keep in mind, that’s nothing compared to the half-life of Uranium.

So how do we keep people safe from nuclear waste over these vast periods of time? At first glance, our toolbox doesn’t seem to offer much. Our usual approach of using systems, structures, languages, colors, and symbols just won’t be relevant to future generations living thousands of years from now. Even when we look just 24,000 years into our past, languages and symbols fade away quickly. And who’s to say what could happen in the future. Hell—see that sign in the photo? It didn’t even keep people from crossing onto the wrong side of the fence!

The Human Interference Task Force

We can’t fuck this up because we have no right to be wrong.

The US government, recognizing this wicked problem, created—and this is true—the “Human Interference Task Force” to come up with solutions. Because there were no experts in this subject, the task force was made up of researchers, historians, futurists, social scientists, and even science fiction writers—all people forced to think beyond their field of expertise.

They were charged with stopping people in the future from coming into contact with nuclear waste generated in the past. Their approach was to try to create some form of message, as well as the underlying transmission and reception systems for that message. Oh, and by the way, their message had to last for at least 10,000 years.

They were charged with three outcomes. The first was to convey to any future recipients that this was, indeed, a message from the distant past. The second was to show people that the place in which they receive the message is a very dangerous place that should be avoided. And then came the hard part: they had to communicate “WHY.” And they had to do it in a way that future civilizations would be absolutely sure to understand. Because there’s so much on the line, so much life at risk. We can’t fuck this up because we have no right to be wrong. But it’s so hard to get this right because we can’t test it—the people creating this message have no way of knowing if it will reach their audience or be understood.

A very wicked problem indeed. Let’s see what they came up with.

Thomas Sebeok, a linguist, proposed that we create a new religion. It would be known as—and this is true—The Atomic Priesthood. It would be like the Catholic Church, but charged with communicating the dangers of the radioactive waste sites over the millennia. Sure, it sounds funny, but beyond language, colors, and symbols, what’s shown more power to endure over time than organized religion? But, of course, religions can rise and fall.

Stanislaw Lem, a science fiction writer, wanted to create a global network of satellites that would constantly communicate messages about the locations and compositions of the nuclear waste sites. But as we saw in the movie “Gravity,” space is no sanctuary. Satellites and other spacecraft are vulnerable to the elements.

Lem also proposed that we alter the DNA of plants to encode messages within them. He called these “information plants”. They would only grow near waste sites in the presence of radiation. They would serve as a perpetual warning system made of natural, renewable materials. Their DNA, once decoded, would contain messages about each waste site’s composition and other important information. But what if future societies don’t have the ability to break the cipher to the DNA in these plants? Or what if the plants are destroyed by acts of man or nature?

French authors Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri had an interesting approach. They said—and, again, this is ALL TRUE—we should breed “radiation cats” or “ray cats.” These “ray cats” would be genetically engineered to GLOW in the presence of radiation, warning humans that they were in the danger zone.

Seriously, how awesome is that?

Yeah, you’re laughing, but remember: humans have a long association with cats. Egyptians worshipped them. And we domesticated them over tens of thousands of years. We even created the Internet to honor them! So it makes sense that future generations would also keep cats… or be kept by them, from the cat’s perspective. But what if they don’t?

Bowing to inevitability is surely worse than planning for some positive outcome. Or is it?

The task force also proposed many options for communicating through inaccessible architecture and design.

Here we see an artist’s depiction of a hellscape of giant, building-sized thorns that would be grown around a waste disposal site. The message here seems clear: stay out, this place is dangerous, it’s useless for settling or cultivation. But what if it turns into some sort of adventure sports park instead?

The task force looked at constructing jagged spikes so giant that could be seen from miles away, or possibly from space. Incidentally, this illustration and the following images come from a government report created by Sandia Labs. It’s one of the most fascinating documents ever produced by or for any government, ever.

Part of what they were trying to achieve was to make the waste repository site as dangerous-looking, menacing, and as inaccessible and impenetrable as possible. Spiky shapes with sharp angles help accomplish that. Even so, these shapes could decay over time. Or they might be seen as welcoming by future cultures.

Another approach would be to make the site look unnatural. Here we see a huge man-made square of black granite or painted concrete. An extra bonus would be that the sun would cause the black square to become so hot that it would burn skin when touched. But colors can fade. Or get covered up as the lands shift.

But perhaps a flat square wouldn’t be enough. What about raised square pillars to block access instead? Sounds good, but what if an earthquake breaks them apart? Or what it it’s seen as some sort of monument?

But that’s all so large in scale and cost. Why not retreat toward simplicity instead? Comics and other simple illustrations were developed to tell the story of the dangers inherent in the area. These panels show how a person becomes sick by accessing the waste site. But while these seem simple, what if future cultures read them from bottom to top? Then they see a story in which sick people become healthy by accessing the waste.

Long-term UX design is complex, far harder than it looks at first. Each of these scenarios has weak points. Each has flaws which, if exploited by man or nature, would cause catastrophic failure, the end of all life on Earth. And yet we must try to solve this problem nonetheless. Because bowing to inevitability is surely worse than planning for some positive outcome.

Or is it? And so we return to the shape under the sheet.

The Nature of Ambiguity

The things that affect us most aren’t problems of the infinite; they’re curiosities of the finite.

Over the course of this talk, we’ve looked at two wicked problems in long-term UX design. And I’ve shown how each of them pulls at us even as we pull back. That’s because they’re rife with ambiguity. And while I’ve turned to fantastical scenarios to illustrate this point, our everyday lives are filled with the unknown. It greets us in the morning, sits with us at meals, and it’s ever present in our relationships and work. It hides in plain sight—we know it’s there.

This is the “Pale Blue Dot” photo taken by Voyager on its journey from Earth into the solar system. And later, beyond it. Now it’s gone 1.2 quadrillion miles away from us. Out of the blue and into the black.

Carl Sagan said that “Everyone you’ve ever known or will ever know lives here on this speck of dust suspended in a sun beam.” (source) We all live and die here, do all our work here, love each other here. Every message we create starts here—each one a cry into an indifferent universe, “full of sound of fury, signifying nothing.” (source)

Or does it? While I’ve talked about huge efforts and fantastical notions, we all deal with uncertainty every day of our lives. Remember what Prufrock asked: “Do I dare disturb the universe? Do I dare to eat a peach?”

As we chip away at our daily, small ambiguities, I believe that we make progress against the greater whole. Our problems—and our solutions to them—need not last throughout the ages to be significant. That’s not what makes them meaningful.

What makes them truly significant is that they’re ephemeral. They don’t endure, they don’t last.

Sometimes, the things that affect us most aren’t problems of the infinite; they’re curiosities of the finite. The smallest problems, the most constrained in scope, the ones that only we know about… They’re the ones that inspire empathy. They’re the ones that keep us awake at night. They’re the fears that force us to consider the shape beneath the sheet. Or, if not fear, then love. Like the love that Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan felt. The most personal, the most intimate of feelings.

We’re all stories in the end. Make yours a good one, eh?

They don’t last.

“In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And in all of the universe, three million-million galaxies like this. And in all of that… and perhaps more, only one of each of us.” (source)

So our problems matter. You matter. I’ve spent 40 years on this planet and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t. (source)

Because we’re ephemeral, too. Everything we do counts. There’s no do-overs. Remember: “We’re all stories in the end. Make yours a good one, eh?” (source)

Because our stories matter, but our divisions don’t. We have all of these labels we use to describe ourselves, to classify our approaches and tools and the unique value we create. And so of course we take offense, we take umbrage, when someone fails to recognize the clarity we create, the particular sort of meaning we make—our expertise in being experts.

But even so, we all have something in common across these fields, as surely as one star has something in common with another star thousands of light-years away. Our divisions don’t matter. We solve our problems together—or not at all.

Carl Sagan used to say, “We’re all made of star-stuff.” I’d add that we all have to deal with uncertainty, with the unknown, with mysteries beyond our comprehension. We’re all in search of answers. So our minor differences pale in comparison with the shape under the sheet. Because what unites us will always be far more important than what drives us apart. And as the shape becomes clear, so do our connections with each other.

Ambiguity doesn’t just surround us—it’s within us.

Whether we design experiences, develop systems, research people and their intent, structure and organize content and data, or tell stories and create narrative flow… we all have something in common with each other: we stand united in dispelling ambiguity. We work together to make the unclear clear.


We dare. And we have to dare, because wicked problems surround us.

Here’s proof of that—this is the math behind Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. And like all math, it tells us a story. Heisenberg’s story is that whenever an object is moving, we can’t tell precisely where it is. Quantum mechanics proves this principle is built into the fabric of our universe.

I mean, fuck—we can’t even tell where things are! Or where they’re going! How can we even pretend to know anything about ourselves, or other people, or what they need from us? Ambiguity doesn’t just surround us—it’s within us.

So we pull at these wicked problems and they pull back. They pull at me. And as I try to adapt to them, they change.

But listen: we’re living “in one corner of one country in one continent on one planet that’s in a corner of a galaxy that’s in a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same, not for a single millisecond. And there is so much, so much to see. Because it all changes so fast.” (source) And because we change in response.

You’re changing, too. The person you are right now, right at this very minute, wasn’t there a moment before. And the people who hear me say these words won’t be here another minute from now.

We Dare

When you find unsolvable problems, you don’t run away from them. You run toward them.

And that’s the key—wicked problems change us surely as we try to fight them. They stoke our genius. They force us to dare.

“Ray cats”? “Information plants”? Inventing pictures out of binary numbers? Communicating chemistry in code? SETTING PLANETS ON FIRE?

Such creative responses from people who dared to work outside their fields of expertise: scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, programmers, inventors, designers, linguists, engineers, sci-fi writers.

User experience designers!

I don’t care—I don’t care who gets the credit. But I don’t want to live in a world without wicked problems because they humble us, they make us more human by forcing us to work together. So I think that we all need wicked problems to solve. Because they ignite our collective creativity. They force us to shift and evolve. They pull us forward by asking us to think beyond impossible constraints. And so when you find yourself adapting, “making something out of nothing,” grappling with ambiguity to make the unclear clear, you, too, are tackling a significant problem. You, too, are part of that greater whole.

It’s OK to be afraid; I’m afraid, too. Working with wicked problems doesn’t require fearlessness, but rather the ability to recognize and overcome our fears. To dare. Other people without your talents, without your skills, would take one look at the ambiguity you take on and run away screaming.

And that’s what makes you different. When you encounter ambiguity, when you find unsolvable problems, you don’t run away from them.

You run toward them. (source)

Managing Ambiguity

Our accountability must always be counter-balanced by empathy.

So I want to leave you with a few ideas, ways you can respond to—if not solve—wicked problems and those gray areas of ambiguity that they represent.

Start by being open and direct. When you can acknowledge the presence of ambiguity in your work, you help others recognize it as well. Don’t let it go unspoken. Instead, be upfront—let people know that you sense the strangeness, too.

One way you can do this is to make sure that you and your partners agree on what the problem is that you’re trying to solve. And dare yourself to take on the biggest problems you can. And never let other people dismiss your work or the challenges you’re facing. You’re UX designers, after all, and you make the numinous.

Creativity only thrives in an environment where we can suppress our urge to control things. Instead, to solve the hardest problems, we have to help people think big, sometimes bigger than they’ve ever thought before.

As leaders, we’re responsible for creating the culture that makes this possible. So the accountability that we establish in our organizations has to be flexible. After all, accountability isn’t meant to be used as a weapon, a blunt cudgel. Rather, it should be more like a warm blanket that helps people feel supported and secure enough to try new things, to take big risks. This is especially true when we face problems that are so vast and interconnected that we can’t see the whole picture, we can’t understand their shape.

To make the most progress in our encounters with ambiguity, our accountability must always be counter-balanced by empathy.

Now let me share a secret with you—it’s the only real secret I know. There’s no such thing as “perfect.” And the drive to somehow become perfect and to create perfect things distracts us from what we’re supposed to be doing: making things better right now.

The longer we take to solve a problem, the more impact we allow it to have on more people. So we have to become comfortable with taking on risk, with being good enough instead of being perfect. And then getting even better over time. Because perfection isn’t some sort of peak or plateau we reach—it’s only a barrier to our progress, collaboration, and creativity.

This means that we’re bound to falter from time to time, especially as we take on more and bigger chunks of ambiguity in our work.

The point isn’t to succeed at all costs. I think it’s to fail—and to fail as often and as quickly as possible so that we can increase our knowledge and understanding of the world and what people need from us. If we can stop punishing failure and start rewarding learning, we’ll incentivize everyone to take on more ambiguity in their work.

So you can build leadership through failure, through humility—I think it’s the only way to build meaningful, empathetic leadership that lasts.

What I love most about our work is not the finished product, not the completed puzzle. I love the journey—the fitting together of all the small pieces into that greater whole. We can’t solve every problem. We can’t even, perhaps, solve the hardest problems. Or sometimes the problems that matter most.

But we can try. We can dare. And that effort, that process… it’s what we do best. It’s who we are. It’s the journey we’re all on. And it matters.


That’s how our story ends: not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with a click.

But for now, we’ve reached a way-station on that road. Our time together is almost complete. Over the next two days, you’ll attend great sessions from leaders in the industry, people who have made the unclear clear.

But as the clock runs down, as entropy collapses our universe, I want you to keep something in mind: we have problems. And there are issues and challenges that seek to divide us. But those divisions don’t really matter. Because, in a way, we’re all working on the same problem. And that challenge matters so much more to the people we serve than the trivial things that try to tear us apart.

We’re united in our recognition of this problem, and our willingness to take it on. After all, it’s the biggest problem there is. And the oldest. And it hides openly, in plain sight.

When we’re faced with ambiguity, we’re not afraid. Because we have the unique ability to overcome our fear. So we don’t run away from it.

We dare to run toward it.

And that’s how our story ends, at least for now. Not with a bang, nor a whimper, but with a click. (source)

And so you see, everything really did turn out fine—just like I promised at the beginning. I’ve brought you all back, safe and sound. But as I mentioned earlier, the people who started out on this journey… they aren’t here anymore—we’ve left them behind forever.

So there’s one last thing I want to leave you with before I disappear, too. A signal that can’t be stopped, heading out of the blue and into the black. One final piece of ambiguity.

Thank you.


With apologies to Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall, Stephen King, T.S. Eliot, William Shakespeare, Abby Covert, Jonathan Larson, Leonard Nimoy and Paul Schneider, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, Denny O’Neil and Archie Goodwin, Michael Crichton and David Koepp, Sam Kieth and William Messner-Loebs, and—of course—to Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Their ideas inspired me so much that, in some cases, I chose to use their words instead of my own for fear of misrepresenting them. I beg their forgiveness—I’ve shown attribution for their ideas throughout this talk so that you can find all of the original sources. As always, for anything that I got right, please thank them; for anything I got wrong, please blame me.

With thanks to Margot Bloomstein, Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Jess McMullin, Mike Atherton, Rachel Lovinger, Alicia Dougherty-Wold, Clay Delk, and Amy Thibodeau for early reviews, hard questions, and thoughtful feedback over the past year. This was a story long in the making, but it wouldn’t have been made at all without their help.

With appreciation to Chris Hester; Alan George and SEMpdx; Kristina Halvorson and Tenessa Gemelke; and Ant Sanders, Christian Manzella, and Joel Kilby for the opportunity to share this story at their events: STC Summit, SearchFest, Confab Central, and GiantConf. With much gratitude to Dr. Batya Friedman at the University of Washington iSchool for introducing me to the concept of wicked problems.

With love to Marja Huhta and #bestdogever. You’re seared onto my heart and we find our way together—or not at all.

Quaere verum in Berkeley, California: February, 2014—May, 2015.


About Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman is a UX content strategist at Facebook, keynote speaker, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter @jcolman. Feel free to contact him directly.
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9 Responses to Wicked Ambiguity and User Experience

  1. Pingback: Jonathon Colman: Wicked Ambiguity | Blog

  2. Nathan Joynt says:

    Well said, Jonathan. Thank you for sharing with everyone.

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  4. Soniya Kirpalani says:

    An eye opener. Thanks for the share and opening my eyes to a whole new world.

  5. JOSE PINTO says:

    Thanks Jonathon for sharing your views. I learnt something new.

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