We hear a lot about the importance of precision in communications, especially in technical domains where ambiguity can lead to costly or deadly mistakes.

But precision and ambiguity are two sides of the same coin. In the right context they can be equally powerful and constructive.

The ability to work with ambiguity stops us from being paralysed by the lack of complete information. When a project moves quickly, waiting for information is often impractical.

During the information gather phase of a user experience or user interface project for example, I always have to fill in missing details with intuition and (sometimes funny) guesses, so I can create complete designs and plans to facilitate further discussions. This is not leaping into a premature conclusions; but rather hopping along a constantly evolving set of conclusions. Prototypes are necessarily filled with guesses and leaps of faith.

If I were to wait until I have all the necessary information to create the “final” design or prototype, nothing will happen. People need to see visual manifestations of ideas before they can move to the next step of understanding and thought.

The tolerance for ambiguity is also the ability to connect and bridge disparate concepts (or viewpoints) without demanding a perfect fit. Human are riddled with paradoxes, and inconsistencies. If we demand precision and clarity for each and every interaction, we will fail to engage successfully with the majority of the population.

Playing with ambiguity is also essential in ideation sessions. Ambiguity underlies much humour, which in turn reduce stress, and cement relationships. Overtly precise language can get in the way of serendipitous lateral connections so critical to breakthrough ideas. It can come across as judgemental. Being pedantic or a stickler for factual correctness will guarantee a poor brainstorming outcome.

Interestingly, some people will use the demand for precision to derail the ideation process and to avoid participation. When every comment has to be examined for correctness and judged for accuracy, there is no room for any new ideas to surface.

Ambiguity allows others to bring their own interpretations and opinions to the table. It is asking open questions, and loosening up definitions to try and encompass a wider and softer set of input. Whereas precision is often about asking closed questions, to cut through to just the facts.

Ambiguity can also be a sign of intimacy: we know what each other means without labouring points.

Image: Abstract via Shutterstock.