The Power of Ambiguity: Why Starting with Questions Beats Having All the Answers

7 min readApr 30, 2024

Navigating ambiguity requires a shift in organizational culture, a reorientation of expectations, and a commitment to empathy and collaboration.

In the fast-paced world of digital product design, success often hinges on a willingness to roll up one’s sleeves, dive into tough challenges, and let curiosity guide the way. It’s about confronting ambiguity head-on, fearlessly grappling with complex questions, and adopting a spirit of exploration, even when the road ahead is unclear.

However, many of us, even those with years of experience, are tempted to skip past these critical early stages, gravitating towards the comfort of a premature solution, even when it’s built on shaky foundations. But why?

The Ambiguity Effect

The answer lies in a quirk of human psychology known as the Ambiguity Effect — a cognitive bias that compels us to avoid choices where the outcome is uncertain. This tendency is fueled by a complex interplay of factors, from our innate desire for control and fear of loss to our comfort with the familiar to overconfidence in personal judgments.

Consider the case of Acme Inc., a hypothetical company on the brink of developing a groundbreaking medical case management tool. Jane, the senior product owner, is convinced that her extensive industry experience gives her a clear understanding of what future users want. She confidently proposes a set of features and a timeline for development, ready to hit the ground running.

Some team members suggest a different approach. They advocate for conducting user research, arguing that validating assumptions and exploring users’ needs is crucial before committing to a plan. But Jane and the team are feeling the heat from above to deliver a definite strategy, and fast. They make a decision that offers a clear line of sight to the eventual outcome: to move quickly, they’ll draw on Jane’s extensive experience and proceed with the thoughtful feature set she’s already generated.

It’s a scenario that plays out in organizations across industries, a testament to the power of the Ambiguity Effect. But what if Jane and her team had taken a different approach? What if they had embraced the discomfort of ambiguity and spent more time exploring their users’ messy, complex world?

Uncovering Value

In an alternative path, Jane and her team asked questions that challenged their initial assumptions: How do case managers currently navigate their work? What frustrations and bottlenecks do they encounter? What tools or resources would make their jobs easier, more efficient, and more effective?

But they didn’t merely ask. They took their curiosity a step further, venturing to observe their users in action, to witness firsthand the realities of their day-to-day work. During one of these observational sessions, a team member noticed something peculiar: each case manager lugged around a hefty tome of instructions, a veritable bible of protocols to guide them through every conceivable case scenario.

Intrigued, the team dug deeper and discovered that the current workflow was so laden with twists and turns that the directories had become indispensable navigational aids. Therein lay a golden opportunity that Jane’s original feature set had overlooked: the chance to streamline and automate these convoluted processes, allowing case managers to work much more efficiently and deliver better care to patients.

This is the power of ambiguity in product design. It’s not about having all the answers from the get-go. It’s having the courage and taking the time to ask questions and dig for answers. It’s about recognizing that the path to innovation often meanders through uncertainty.

Cultivating Comfort in Ambiguity

Navigating ambiguity requires practice and dedication. It often necessitates a shift in organizational culture, a reorientation of expectations, and a commitment to empathy and collaboration. Embracing ambiguity should invite structured exploration guided by a shared understanding of an attainable end goal. But how do we take meaningful steps toward creating these shifts?

Frameworks for Accountability

A consistent operational framework can provide a product team with a shared structure for understanding the path they will travel together while maintaining overall accountability for eventually reaching a point of clarity. One such framework that has proven effective throughout my career involves three key stages:

  1. Deeply understanding the current state: By diving deep into the current state and its surrounding context, we grant ourselves permission to ask the tough questions and shine a light on the unknowns.
  2. Articulating insights and opportunities that reveal themselves in research: We hold ourselves accountable for crafting a clear statement of intent as we articulate the opportunity. This north star will guide us through the fog of research and discovery.
  3. Constructing a plan to bridge the gaps between the current reality and the future opportunity: By building a plan, we signal our commitment to executing the details with thoughtfulness and precision.

Rituals as Touchstones

Product design teams can also find their way through uncertainty by adhering to helpful rituals and practices. At MentorMate, we favor Enterprise Design Thinking’s cyclical rhythm of Observation, Reflection, and Making. This loop serves as our compass, with each ‘Reflection’ point acting as a beacon around which we gather internally and with our clients to perform the rituals illuminating our path forward. Below are some of our favorite rituals:

  1. Question and Objective Alignment: Before embarking on any ambiguous endeavor, we gather the product design team for a 45-to-90-minute digital whiteboarding session to give voice to the big questions we have as individuals. We anonymously document our thoughts and questions and then leverage affinity mapping to identify overarching themes to guide our research. As we navigate the twists and turns of product design, we return to this ritual again and again. These alignment sessions remind us that questioning is not a one-time event but a continuous practice, a habit of mind that keeps us tethered to the pursuit of innovation.
  2. Research Recaps: Our researchers regularly meet to share the findings of our research and insights we’ve gathered from user experience research with the entire product team. Doing so helps us increase our collective knowledge. However, we’re careful not to fall into groupthink. The team members responsible for research summarize the findings and highlight key themes and examples. They also maintain participant privacy and adhere to research ethics. For many stakeholders, this is the closest they get to hearing from research participants directly. This experience can be transformative. When stakeholders see the raw data of user reality, they often change their assumptions. They stop trying to control the situation and start appreciating the power of discovery.
  3. Collaborative Insights: Insights are those elusive nuggets of wisdom born from the marriage of data and expertise. They are crucial for effective product design. Just like a child needs a community to grow up, insights need a collaborative effort to nurture them from infancy to maturity. Team members should have enough time, often several hours over multiple sessions, to come together and share their unique perspectives during the insight generation process. This inclusive approach leads to a better product and helps to reduce resistance to ambiguity. When people feel their expertise is respected and their control is not threatened, they are more likely to embrace the unknown with open arms.

Every team must develop its own way of working, with practices and routines tailored to its unique needs. The specifics may differ, but the underlying principle remains the same: by dedicating time to collaborative reflection and sharing, we keep team members engaged with the unfolding story of research. This reduces the fear and anxiety that can come with a big, unexpected reveal at the end. The goal is to find a way of working that suits everyone and keeps everyone involved and informed throughout the project.

When faced with uncertainty, these routines act as a guide, a constant reference point. They help us remember that although we may not know where we’re headed, the process is meaningful and full of possibilities. By adopting these habits, we gain more confidence in navigating the unknown and create a communal feeling of responsibility and commitment to the results we uncover throughout the journey.

Embracing Constraints

While counterintuitive, constraints serve many purposes when navigating ambiguity. They compel us to act intentionally, pose well-considered questions, and manage expectations within the broader business context.

Embracing ambiguity is not about relinquishing control or abandoning structure. It’s about redefining what control and structure look like in the face of the unknown. It’s about having the courage to ask hard questions, the humility to admit what we don’t know, and the strategic prowess to chart a course through uncertainty toward clarity and innovation.

Managing Anxieties

For many stakeholders, the absence of clarity can be a source of deep anxiety. To manage these anxieties, we can:

  • Communicate the Process: Frame ambiguity as a necessary and valuable part of the journey, providing a clear overview of the product design process.
  • Set Expectations: Establish clear expectations around timelines, deliverables, and outcomes, providing a roadmap for when stakeholders can expect updates and how decisions will be made.
  • Provide Regular Updates: Commit to providing regular updates, even if just to share what’s been learned so far, serving as a lifeline and reminder that progress is being made.
  • Invite Participation: Give stakeholders a role to play, such as soliciting their input during alignment sessions or inviting them to observe user research, helping them feel invested and comfortable with the uncertainties.
  • Celebrate the Journey: Recognize the hard work, creativity, and courage that goes into navigating ambiguity, celebrate the value of insights gleaned along the way, and foster a culture that embraces uncertainty as an opportunity for growth.


Ambiguity is a good thing. It can help us discover innovative ideas and solutions that we haven’t even thought of. By getting comfortable with ambiguity, we can find breakthrough solutions that not only address current needs but also anticipate future ones. This process can be difficult, but those who embrace it can reap great rewards. And isn’t that what innovation is all about? Not just solving the problems we can see but uncovering the ones we hadn’t even thought to look for?

Original post here.

Authored by Annika Hey.




Blending strategic insights and thoughtful design with brilliant engineering, we create durable technical solutions that deliver digital transformation at scale