Ambiguity as a Resource for Design – a Review

Reading – Ambiguity as a resource for design, by William Gaver, Jacob Beaver, and Steve Benford

Ambiguity is often seen as a quirk to be avoided, and for good reason. If your results are incomprehensible, then your research may be wasted, but ambiguity can also be used as a pointed tool, getting results much deeper than otherwise expected. When you want your research to be intriguing, thought provoking, and other buzzwords, it may be useful to implement strategies harnessing ambiguity. This paper talks about creating ambiguity in three ways. Ambiguity in information, contexts, and relationships.

Ambiguity in information sounds extremely counterproductive, but hiding some, and not all, of your information can force the interpreter to fill in the gaps in ways that are personal to them. If you’ve ever seen the Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci, you will likely recognize that she does not have a clear expression. This is due to the softening of detail around the mouth and lips. As a result, the viewers are the ones that must interpret the expression themselves, a valuable intellectual task the artwork easily asks.

“Point out things without explaining why…”

Secondly, there is ambiguity of context. Take the idea of a phones ringtone. Straightforward and obvious to its purpose of letting you know someone wants your attention. However, it is just a sound, that can have a multitude of uses. Some mothers download a soothing, soft ringtone, and put the phone near a young child. Calling the phone turns it from an alert to a lullaby, something that phone manufacturers were clearly not anticipating. The ambiguity of the cell phone ringtone comes about in the context which it is used, either alert, or lullaby.

Lastly, there is ambiguity in relationships. Although similar to ambiguity of context, ambiguity of relationships has its uniqueness. The Home Health Monitor encapsulates this well. The Home Health Monitor is a device in a home that monitors and gives feedback on the home’s emotional, physical, and spiritual health using various sensors- ie. light, temperature, door-openings, or even window condensation or hair brush tempo. Oddly enough, however, the feedback is given in horoscopes, not raw data. Punchline- although it may not be clear to the user why specific things are being tracked, they will nevertheless respond in their own unique way, depending how they interpret their own relationship with the various things being tracked.

So as a whole, we can see that tactile ambiguity pointed at users can force them into situations asking them to fill in the gaps, allowing the researchers to likely learn more about the person(s) than if they simply asked pointed questions.

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