What to do about ambiguous design problems

Illustration by Simina Popescu for this article.

How do you approach a problem that has no definition, not even a hypothesis?

How do you walk into a room of talented and experienced cross-functional peers—engineers, product managers, customer success managers—and guide them through problem identification and solution brainstorming… when you yourself have no idea of what’s to come?

As product designers grow in their careers we are tasked with taking on more complexity and ambiguous problems. We find ourselves in situations where our job is to help others envision and explore a complex and often poorly defined landscape.

If you’re just starting out in your career as a designer, you will likely be tasked with feature-level or already clearly defined problems: improving the information hierarchy of a screen or finding a way to grow interactions on a particular button.

As you progress in your design career—improving skills and understanding of how design plays a part in digital products getting made as well as how they become successful—you may be tasked with more ambitious and ambiguous challenges: researching and synthesizing ideas around expanding the business, leading a organization-wide usability effort, or dramatically improving the usability of several broad feature areas of the product (or the entire product itself).

At some point a senior designer may decide to continue and work on the product side of things or they might decide to transition to a new type of problem: managing and leading a team. Team problems are very much like ambiguous, multi-faceted product problems: in that they consist of many moving parts that you, as a leader, need to figure out how to help work effectively together.

In either case, the challenges ahead will be fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. Others on the team will be looking to you, as the designer, to help lead them forward.

Progressing to a point in your career where you have the trust and skills necessary to be held accountable for, know how to approach, and successfully navigate, very large, ambiguous problems (team or product related) can be stressful and often frightening. Particularly if you’ve never done that type of work before.

I’ve talked with quite a few designers over the course of my career who find the challenge of growing through ambiguous problems almost overwhelming.

How do you approach ambiguous problems?

You start. With what you have now, however you can.

When faced with uncertainty and ambiguity, starting is a powerful way of creating definition. A step in any direction is a step forward. Even if you come to learn the direction you’re heading in is the wrong one, you’ll have learned something tangible. That learning is far more valuable than not moving and not learning.

As Lewis Carroll famously wrote in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there."

Of course, the alternative is to wait, to research, to plan before you start off in a direction. That’s a direction worth considering, often worth taking. But the way to even do that is to first set off in a direction, to take a chance on some question, some idea, some hypothesis. Movement is what matters most at the start of any endeavor.

Often we fear that if we make a wrong choice—if we ask the wrong questions or head off in the wrong direction—we’ll be viewed as a failure. But most decisions can be turned around. Most directions can be informative, even when they turn out to be wrong.

As designers, we’re often best suited for rapid adaptation, keen awareness of user needs and problems, and ideating through solutions. When others around us are paralyzed by uncertainty, we can take it on ourselves to take that first step, wrong or right, and help guide our team forward.

Define a list of what you know and what you don’t know, create a document of questions and hypotheses, audit competitors, start a conversation with any customers who will make time for you, drawing out low-fidelity maps of existing experiences...

When faced with an ambiguous design problem, the best thing you can do is anything. There is no right or best way to move forward, there is only action and inaction.