Ambiguity as a resource for design
1. P. 233
information finds its source in the artefact itself, ambiguity
of context in the sociocultural discourses that are used to
interpret it, and ambiguity of relationship in the
interpretative and evaluative stance of the individual.
2. Instead of regarding ambiguity as a problem, however, in
this paper we suggest that it can be seen as an opportunity.
Ambiguity can be frustrating, to be sure. But it can also be
intriguing, mysterious, and delightful.
But in the many emerging
applications for everyday life, we argue that ambiguity is a
resource that designers should neither ignore nor repress.
Allowing this ambiguity to be reflected in
design has several advantages.
Most importantly, it allows
designers to engage users with issues without constraining
how they respond.
In addition, it allows the designer’s
point of view to be expressed while enabling users of
different sociocultural backgrounds to find their own
Finally, ambiguity can make a virtue out
of technical limitations by providing the grounds for
people’s interpretations to supplement them.
(1) Sloganbench + Imagebank
(2) Desert Rain
(3) The Pillow
(4) Home Health Monitor
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ambiguity ranges from the limited ability of sensors to
monitor home activities to the relationship between
measurable variables and emotional ones, and from the
vague language used by most horoscopes to the
juxtaposition of electronic technology with culturally
Most importantly, they highlight the fact that ambiguity is
a property of the interpretative relationship between people
and artefacts. This distinguishes ambiguity from related
concepts such as fuzziness or inconsistency: these are
attributes of things, whereas ambiguity is an attribute of
our interpretation of them.
Things themselves are not
inherently ambiguous. They may give rise to multiple
interpretations depending on their precision, consistency,
and accuracy on the one hand, and the identity,
motivations, and expectations of an interpreter on the other.
This interpretative relationship is the source of ambiguity’s
appeal: by thwarting (反對) easy interpretation, ambiguous
situations require people to participate in making meaning.
TYPES OF AMBIGUITY
(1) Ambiguity of information
(2) Ambiguity of context
(3) Ambiguity of relationship
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In summary, the three kinds of ambiguity raise different
sorts of problem and ask for different sorts of
interpretation. Ambiguity of information asks us to project
our expectations into an interpretation of incomplete
information. Ambiguity of context requires an integration
of seemingly incompatible frames of reference. Ambiguity
of relationship, finally, evokes a projection of our
subjective experiences and attitudes onto new situations.
Enhancing ambiguity of information
(1) Use imprecise representations to emphasise uncertainty.
(2) Over-interpret data to encourage speculation.Imprecise displays such as these are often described as‘ambient’, but they are ambiguous as well. Thisambiguity, we believe, is crucial for understanding theirappeal: they may be perceptually undemanding, but theyrequire users to fill in the gaps in information that ispurposefully imprecise. When successful, such interfacesare not only aesthetically attractive, but conceptuallyappealing as well.
The design equivalent of gross exaggeration (e.g.“I’ve been working on this paper for a million years”),over-interpretation is best used to draw attention topossible truths rather than simple untruths.
(3) Expose inconsistencies to create a space of interpretation.
Inconsistent information from interfaces can also encourageinterpretative engagement. For example, the Imagebankused in the Projected Realities system sometimes showedmultiple, inconsistent images (e.g. a quiet family scenenext to a protest march) to reflect inconsistent slogansappearing on the Sloganbenches.
(4) Cast doubt on sources to provoke independent assessment.
Creating ambiguity of Context
(1) Implicate (暗示) incompatible contexts to disrupt preconceptions.
(2) Add incongruous (不一致) functions to breach (破壞) existing genres.Though none of our introductory design examplesimplicate incompatible contexts as powerfully asDuchamp’s Fountain, all use this tactic to some degree ininterrupting an easy interpretation.The Sloganbenches arenot quite public furniture or public displays, and treatingthem simply as one or the other is problematic (sitting onthem blocks the displays; viewing the displays blockssitting).
Adding new functions to designs can sometimes movethem out of their ‘home’ genres. From this perspective,the conceptual origin of the Sloganbenches as publicfurniture is apparent, but they have become somethingdifferent through the addition of the scrolling displays.
(3) Block expected functionality to comment on familiar
Perhaps the purest example of blocking functionality to
achieve ambiguity of context is Sarah Pennington’s design
of a mobile phone cover that has no ‘call’ or ‘receive’
buttons. The phone is transmuted into a device that can
only signal when somebody is trying to call: the owner
can’t pick up or make calls. Through this simple
modification, Pennington disrupts our reading of the phone
as a communications device, creating instead a rather
plaintive reminder of separation. But the result doesn’t
escape its origin as a phone: it is simultaneously phone and
not-phone, and this ambiguity is central to its effect.
Provoking ambiguity of relationship
(1) Offer unaccustomed roles to encourage imagination.
(2) Point out things without explaining why.Dunne’s Pillow  is a seminal example of applyingambiguity of relationship to electronic products. Cullingelectromagnetic information from sources that mightinclude mobile phone calls or baby monitors, it entices (誘使)people to assume a voyeuristic (窺淫狂者的) role amid the airwaves.
For example, the rationale for tracking certain physical
events for the Home Health Monitor is not apparent, but
the mere fact of their being tracked may arouse curiosity
among participants.(3) Introduce disturbing side effects to question responsibility.
Reflection about the balance of desire and ethics can be
provoked by designs that seem immediately appealing but
which have disquieting (焦慮不安) implications. The Pillow works
this way in providing an aesthetic experience that only
slowly reveals itself as depending on eavesdropping (偷聽): it
seduces people into a voyeuristic role that may be
Ambiguity is not a virtue in itself, nor should it be used as
an excuse for poor design. Many ambiguous systems are
merely confusing, frustrating, or meaningless.
Nonetheless, as we hope to have shown in this paper, it can
be an important factor in crafting interactive designs that
are engaging and thought-provoking. Moreover, it has the
added advantage (which we have purposely avoided
stressing in this paper) of enabling designers to go beyond
the limits of their technologies. From this point of view,
ambiguity provides a frame of reference that allows the use
of inaccurate sensors, inexact mappings, and low-resolution
displays because it encourages users to supplement them
with their own interpretations and beliefs.
of information impels people to question for themselves
the truth of a situation.
Contextual ambiguity can question
the discourses surrounding technological genres, allowing
people to expand, bridge, or reject them as they see fit.
Relational ambiguity, finally, can lead people to consider
new beliefs and values, and ultimately their own attitudes.