Designing in Ambiguity — part 2

Eight tools for navigating uncertainty

February 11, 2022
11 min read

💡 Did you check out part one? Here you’ll find out four mindsets to help you persist through ambiguity.

First, a little context

Before I get into it, I will reference a lot of real-life examples from my time designing the Bunch App to show you how I’ve used these tools in practice. In short, Bunch is a startup whose mission has always been to help teams collaborate better together. Their latest product is the AI Leadership Coach that gives 2-min daily tips for different workplace challenges and level-up as a leader.

The story of building the Bunch app is one of navigating ambiguity

Many of the stories will come from the ambiguous parts of the journey designing this product from an idea sketched out on keynote to the app you see now with over 30000 downloads.

Hopefully, that puts things into context for you, and speaking of…that leads us to our first tool for designing in ambiguity…

1. Contextual Research 👀

When you’re just starting out in the problem space, there are a lot of unknown unknowns — you don’t know what you don’t know. Contextual research is a good way to fill in this gap.

While you’ll be able to formulate and answer some of your questions with open-ended interviews, observing people in their context will surface things you’d have never thought to ask.

In the early stages of the Bunch App, I shadowed our CTO; who had the type of leadership challenges that we were focused on. I joined him on his commute home, stayed at his house overnight, commuted back with him to the office in the morning, and watched his interactions at work. For most of this time, I was a fly on the wall — I watched his habits and routines, I saw all the idle moments when he consumed content and which types he preferred, I listened to his conversations about work with his partner over dinner, and I noticed him writing down frameworks from the audiobook he was listening to that he’d apply later with a team member.

Shadowing our CTO who was representative of a typical target user

Looking back I can connect how many of those observations contributed to important principles and features of the Bunch app, here are just a few examples:

  • Variable content consumption habits > customisable notification times + content in audio, readable and visual formats for different contexts
  • Conversations with partner > Slack community to help people expand their network + curating advice from other leaders
  • Writing down mental models > a core part of the daily tip format + save for later feature

If you can manage to do even one session of contextual research then go for it; the value and uniqueness of insights you’ll gain are well worth it! Shadowing gives you the most context, but diary studies are a good alternative. Advocate for contextual research whenever you can.

2. Visual Synthesis 🔗

When you synthesise information, you’re drawing connections between different data points. The quickest and most common method I see is team debriefs after research sessions to count up the highlights, pain points and observations.

This is a good start, but don’t stop there, get visual! This makes it easier to spot the patterns; it’s systems thinking in practice.

It’s not just for you. Visual presentation makes it more memorable and initiates action from your team. Here’s one reason I think why:

The human body has about eleven million sensory receptors. Approximately ten million of those are dedicated to sight. Some experts estimate that half of the brain’s resources are used on vision…so it should come as no surprise that visual cues are the greatest catalyst of our behavior. For this reason, a small change in what you see can lead to a big shift in what you do.

- James Clear
, Atomic Habits

So, make time for it.

Affinity mapping is one of the most common techniques for visual synthesis, where you group data into themes. It’s easy to do as a group with non-designers, and tools like Miro make it accessible in a remote context.

Here’s an example where I visualised all the trigger moments I observed from shadowing and interviews and potential opportunities that they could offer as a day in the life timeline. (If you have time this would be even better as an illustrated storyboard!)

Day in the life timeline with triggers and opportunities

I also ran interviews asking participants to talk through their careers while I visualized their stories as a journey map. As we started to do more of them we could begin to spot common difficulties in a manager’s career. This helped us to target other people at that same stage in their career who would benefit most from a solution that Bunch could offer.

Career journey map — remember to ask how they feel at each stage of the journey

So, synthesize visually and you’ll start finding clarity in the ambiguity.

3. Assumption mapping 📌

When you’re working in ambiguity, there will be a lot of assumptions flying around. It’s vital to get them out of people’s heads and on paper, that way you can set up a more rigorous process to test them instead of continuing to guess.

At Bunch, we regularly ran assumption mapping workshops as a whole team, where everyone would share the assumptions they had about the product, and the business. This got everyone into the curious, scientist mindset.

Once we had our list of assumptions we could prioritize them based on their risk to the business and how confident we believed they were true. This gives you a road map of experiments to derisk the top assumptions.

Here’s an example:

  • Assumption: Our target market of emerging leaders are emotionally aware and not oblivious to people issues
  • How to test: Interview questions, google keyword analysis
  • Findings: Mixed. There were problems that people were unaware that they had or weren’t able to properly diagnose. This led to the “inspiration” use case where the app recommends a daily tip for you. Also, our content might challenge your existing mental models about how to lead.

Another great thing about prioritizing assumptions this way is that it helps you live with some level of ambiguity; the least risky assumptions can stay uncertain for now. Check out the Testing Business Ideas by David J Bland and Alex Osterwalder for inspiration on how to test your assumptions.

4. State your purpose and constraints ✨

While research will help you learn more about the market and discover people’s unmet needs and problems, that doesn’t mean you can, and should, solve all of them. At Bunch, the mission was always broadly focused on helping teams collaborate better together. This led to many different products following that mission.

  1. Psychological team assessment: the slow growth potential and users began primarily using it for hiring ⏭
  2. LinkedIn hiring assistant: challenges with the LinkedIn platform and the CEO/Founder struggling to envigorate passion for the product led us back to team development, influenced heavily by investors ⏭
  3. Culture Analytics for Slack: the product was too distant from managers, who had a more direct impact on the culture, and time-consuming data challenges led to churning users ⏭

After 3 pivots, our Head of Growth sat down with the CEO/Founder and really dug deep into why she started the business in the first place. It was after truly understanding this underlying purpose (to scale her impact as a coach) that the Bunch AI Leadership Coach emerged.

While we can’t deny the learnings from previous products, having a strong purpose sooner would have helped us decide from the abundance of opportunities the market presented to us, and given us a shortcut to the one that everyone could get passionate about. Combining market insights and a strong purpose will give you a north star to follow when things are uncertain.

Pro-tip: It’s a good exercise to say what you’re not doing too, in other words, setting your constraints. For example, the CEO/Founder didn’t want to build a 1-on-1 tool or a coaching marketplace.

5. Opportunity Solution Tree 🌿

Even with user insights and a strong purpose, you’ll still probably have many directions you could take. It’s easy to fall into the trap of jumping on the first opportunity that seems promising, but what if there are other potentially even better ones out there?

The Opportunity Solution Tree from Teresa Torres helps you and your team systematically test opportunities until you land on one with results worth pursuing.

Opportunity Solution Tree

Start from your desired outcome or purpose, then generate all the exciting opportunities that can get you there as a team (informed by your research of course!). From there you’ll come up with more specific solutions for each opportunity that you can test with experiments.

The first opportunity solution tree we sketched out at Bunch

At Bunch, we set up teams to run experiments in parallel: from a communication coach in Slack to a body language coach on Zoom. Every week we assessed the results. We took the promising solutions forward and created new experiments for solutions we hadn’t tested yet. One of those experiments was the genesis of the AI-Leadership Coach.

Feeling more confident in the ambiguity yet? Here’s one of my favourites…

6. Concierge Prototypes 😎

While you may get promising reactions in interviews, and your users’ existing behaviours seem to predict that they’ll adopt your product too, neither of these data points will give you reliable evidence that they will actually engage with your product when you launch it. It still leaves a lot of room for uncertainty.

That’s where concierge prototypes come in handy. With this kind of prototype, you try to mimic the service as closely as you possibly can. Often they involve using no-code, manual solutions that save you time and money and enable you to iterate quickly.

The first version of the AI-Leadership Coach started out as a concierge service on Whatsapp and iMessage with a group of 80 users. Each week we recommended content for our users’ challenges and interacted with them directly in individual chats. As far as they knew, this was the service.

Our overall goal was to get more reliable metrics for the engagement and retention of this service, and we did! We also learned which elements of personal coaching people valued most and we could feasibly scale. Here are some of the things we tested:

  • Content formats and topics
  • Generic content vs. personal challenges
  • Leadership style survey and profile
  • Setting goals
  • Progress tracking and skill development
  • Notifications
  • Quizzes

Example conversations from our concierge coaching service

Every week we ran a new experiment, and those that delivered results that hit or surpassed our goals would be taken into the app.

Concierge prototypes give you real evidence and more certainty.

But we were not quite done yet. For a while, we entertained the idea that the coach would be a chat-based service on an existing platform like Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger, but this didn’t offer the functionality that our users demanded. So we concluded it would be a mobile app — always available and personalised. But there was a big gap in our understanding of what that might look like. This was another source of ambiguity.

So, time to make things tangible!

7. Analogous Experiences 💡

When you’re sketching out the first concepts, look for products and services that have parallels with what you’re trying to offer, without being a competitor. By presenting these analogies, you’ll be able to make decisions with your team about what it could be, and what it isn’t.

Here were some of the strongest influences for the Leadership Coach app:

  • Freeletics: a personal fitness trainer app
  • Cleo: the chat-based financial assistant
  • Ada Health: a chat-based tool for diagnosing health conditions
  • Habit-based products like Calm and Reflectly

They all had parallels to draw inspiration from and helped facilitate discussions and decisions about the parts that could work for us, which parts wouldn’t. These ideas led to the first wireframes and interactive prototypes that we could test and iterate on.

A few examples of the analogous experiences we drew from

From a blank canvas to real testable concepts 💥

Okay, last one…

8. Making Bets 🎲

With all these tools you’ll be in a better position to make well-evidenced decisions in the ambiguity, but you’ll never have all the information you need. In the end, you and your team are making bets.

Here’s a simple phrase I often use that can help cut through the uncertainty:

If I was to make a bet, I would…

By placing a bet, you’ll kickstart the decision-making while staying humble that you don’t have all the answers. Others in the team may also agree with you or make their own bets. Encourage them to share what led them to this option and what evidence gave them confidence.

As a team or for the final decision maker, you can now make a choice for which direction to take.

Forcing ourselves to express how sure we are of our beliefs brings to plain sight the probabilistic nature of those beliefs, that what we believe is almost never 100% or 0% accurate but, rather, somewhere in between.

- Annie Duke
, Former Professional Poker Player & Author of Thinking in Bets

Ambiguity is here to stay, but with the right mindset and tools, you can help your team to navigate it more confidently. Hey, you might even learn to like it!

Thanks again to elisabeth.graf for the feedback & input.