Creating certainty and embracing uncertainty

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Certainty and uncertainty are both important and we need to be able to balance them well - Certainty is the foundation of trust, you need to create certainty for other people. Uncertainty is the foundation of growth, you need to embrace uncertainty for yourself.

Create certainty to build trust

In UX design, people talk about intuitive design all the time. Do you often hear that I don’t know why, but I just feel it’s not intuitive…”. But what does “intuitive” exactly mean? My interpretation is to create certainty for users.

Certainty is the foundation of trust

People always prefer certainty and dislike uncertainty. 
In 1986, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced a psychological phenomenon called certainty effect, where a customer pays more attention or picks deals wherein they are certain to benefit rather than taking deals where the profit is not certain. 
For example, what would you choose:
  • A. Sure gain of $200
  • B. An 80% to win $350 (20% chance to win $0)
If you’re like most people, you will choose option A - a sure gain. However, if you do the math, an 80% probability of winning $350 carries an expected value of $280 (0.8 x 350). So, most people would give up an expected $80 of value just for certainty. 
Certainty really matters when people make decisions, it can give them a sense of security and it earns trust. Nobody would like to invest time and money on an uncertain thing. 
On Airtasker, we’ve found that the tasks with more detailed description will get more offers compared with the ones with vague details. Also, Taskers with high completion rate, good reviews and corresponding experience are more likely to get assigned.
Therefore, to make the users trust the product and behave as expected, you should create certainty for them.
Take Youtube as an example, it allows users to skip the ad after 5 secs. On the one hand, compared with other products that users can’t skip the ad or they have to wait for a few mins to be able to do so, it offers a better experience.
On the other hand, 5 secs are pretty short, users are more likely to wait and watch it rather than go away and do something else. In this way, those who are interested in the ad can be more likely to have their attention captured and continue watching it. 
As Youtube only charges when someone chooses to view the ad for at least 30 seconds or engages with the ad, it provides such great certainty with the advertisers that they can make sure every penny will count. Advertisers put great trust in this service, that’s why it’s so popular.

Start with empathy to create certainty

A designer’s responsibility is to create certainty for the customers, with fewer efforts required and more delights offered. To achieve that, the first step is to empathise with customers, understand what specific certainty they need in each particular scenario.
Survey, Desktop Research, Customer Interviews, Contextual Inquiries, Empathy Map, Persona, Customer Experience/Journey Map, etc. These are some methods I usually use to create empathy and synthesise information to understand what certainty customers need.
For example, by creating the Customer Experience Map, you can understand what customers expect to do, to know and to feel so that in next step, you can create corresponding content to deliver the certainty they need.

Create content with certainty

There are some fantastic insights from the Information theory proposed by Claude Shannon that can guide us to create content with certainty.
Shannon pointed out that the amount of information is determined by not only the length but also the amount of uncertainty it overcomes. 
For example, which message contains the largest amount of information:
  • A. Mfljalkdjfadlfjsddsfansdfou1lk2fa3.
  • B. Mst ppl hv lttl dffclty n rdng ths sntnc.
  • C. Most people have little difficulty in reading this sentence.
The answer is A, just some random words there. It has the most enormous amount of uncertainty that makes it the hardest one to predict the meaning. Compared with C, some words are missing in B, although most people can still understand it, it still contains somewhat uncertainty. Therefore, the ranking is A > B > C.
This theory tells us that to create content with certainty, you need to reduce the amount of information. There are two ways:
  1. Reduce the amount of uncertainty, give customers hints/instructions, answer their questions or concerns.
  1. Reduce the content. Reduce the length if it’s a message, and reduce the elements if it’s an interface.
No.1 has a higher priority than No.2, as sometimes it requires more content to deliver certainty. Think about the example above. For option B and C, although they have the same meaning, C creates more certainty.
However, efficiency is critical as well, as customers generally lack patience. So that you need to balance certainty and efficiency. In the previous article Design for simplicity”, I talked about some ways to simplify the content and improve efficiency, feel free to have a read.

Create certainty to collaborate better

Certainty is the foundation of trust, you need to create certainty not only for customers but also for colleagues.
Creating certainty can help teams to collaborate more efficiently. Many agile activities are designed to gain certainty of team members. E.g., standup, sprint planning, story kickoff, code review, retro, etc. All these are to keep everyone on the same page, so that the whole team can manage the expectations and dependencies better, and reduce waste caused by any uncertainties such as guessing, different expectations, etc.
Creating certainty can help to assemble a winning team. In the book Principles”, Ray Dalio describes the baseball card system his company Bridgewater uses to outline the strengths and weaknesses of each employee.
Since people have different skills and talents, you wouldn’t have a great fielder with a .160 batting average bat third, you wouldn’t assign a big picture person a task requiring attention to detail.” With this system, they can find the right person for the right job.

Embrace uncertainty to grow

It’s crucial to create certainty for others to build trust. However, to achieve personal growth, you need to be “special” - Don’t fear uncertainty, instead, embrace it.

Gain unfair advantages through uncertainty

In general, the more uncertain something is, the harder it is to achieve, the fewer people are willing and able to do that, the more gains it creates. Therefore, to gain unfair advantages, you need to embrace uncertainty, travel “the road not taken”.
Also, from Shannon’s information theory, we know that the more uncertain something is, the more enormous amount of information it contains. To create more information to make your life more meaningful, you need to embrace uncertainty.

Build a system and keep evolving it

To overcome uncertainty and achieve personal growth, you should build your own system and keep evolving it. 
In Principles”, Ray Dalio points out that you need to think of yourself as a machine operating within a machine. Unlike most people make right decisions by good luck. You increase the certainty of making right decisions by building and keeping evolving the system through a learn - practice - measure feedback loop.

Introduce uncertainty to produce innovation

To keep your system from being rigid, you need to introduce uncertainty proactively, and this might produce innovation.
In Tim Harford’s book Messy”, he gives an example that there was a transport strike in London a couple of years ago. Most of the London underground stations got shut down for 48 hours, and people had to change to a new route during the strike. 
The economist studied this found that, after the strike finished, about 5 percent of people still stayed with the new route. Which means that 1 in 20 of them discovered that when they were forced to find a new way, they found a better way.
Tim names this phenomenon to “arbitrary shock” - no elaborate planning, no specific direction, just merely an arbitrary shock, which then creates a great chance for innovation.