Ambiguity Journey Maps

How do we move through different layers of ambiguity?

Kelly Schmutte
Tried and Tested
Worksheet, Activity
No items found.
Purpose for Students
Make it Personal
Date Added: 
May 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

Metaphors are a powerful way to explore our relationship with ambiguity.  One aspect of ambiguity that we believe to be true is that when you embrace it, you see ambiguity not as a time-based phenomenon, but rather an ever-present layer.  It's up to us when and how we choose to "dip" into ambiguity, and emerge from it.  But we can always expose ourselves to more, and when do, we also open up the possibility for discovery, opportunity, and new meaning.  

One metaphor that I think really captures this aspect of ambiguity is deep-sea ocean exploration.  First off, you must make the choice to leave the safety of the known to step into the world of the unknown --  you have to get out of the boat and jump into the ocean.  Where the rest of the world might see uncertainty and confusion, and feel fear and discomfort, ambiguity-embracers boldly plunge forward.  

When you're first in the water, you in what I call the "Splash Zone".  This is where it’s fun and comfortable, and feels pretty easy (this might be like swimming or snorkeling).  You can still see your friends, the sun shining above you, and the boat.  

If you swim down deeper, you might find yourself in what I call the "Discomfort Zone."  This is where it starts to feel unclear where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re there. It's much darker, and you've lost your bearings / reference points a bit (this might be like free diving or scuba diving).  

But if you venture further still, you might find yourself in the "Discovery Zone."  This is where breakthroughs happen, and skill, effort, and persistence are rewarded (this would be like deep-sea exploration in a submarine).  This is where meaning is made.  

Why do we get in the ocean in the first place?  I think the answer is because there's the promise that if you manage to get to the Discovery Zone, it might change the direction of where your ship was sailing in the first place.  It helps you reframe the nature of a problem, or discover a totally new solution.  While the journey can be very challenging, and you have to pass through uncomfortable murky layers, it also opens the door to new and unexpected opportunities.




How could students connect the dots about their experience navigating ambiguity during an ambiguous, open-ended design challenge?  I made a simple 11x17  worksheet that has the 3 different ocean zones on it.  Students were asked to then map their journey of the project, and how they moved through or experienced these different zones over the course of the project.  

We had students do this activity after completing their first 3-week design project.  We had introduced navigating ambiguity at the start of the class, but now they'd really experienced it firsthand.  

When they finished making their journey map,  we asked them to look at inflection points and boundary crossings and add notes to their maps…

  • What activities were you doing then?  
  • What abilities were you exercising in those moments? (consciously or unconsciously)

We collected students' journey maps, and held onto them for the duration of the quarter.  We handed them back to students at the very end of the quarter, as part of a "time capsule" package to remember where they'd been at the start.




Taking the time to reflect and look back on your work in a moment of ambiguity helps you make sense of what didn't make sense necessarily in the moment.  It also helps strengthen self-awareness around skills and capabilities that helped that student navigate ambiguity (i.e. quickly testing prototypes, doing a new user interview).  

A few other ideas...

  • Do a "gallery walk" at the end that allows everyone to see everyone else's journey maps.  It's cathartic for students to see similarities!  
  • One way in which this ocean metaphor is also strong is that it reinforces teamwork in being able to navigate ambiguity.  With each layer you descend, it becomes more imperative to rely on other people.  (You'd never attempt to get to the ocean floor by yourself!)  Ask students to discuss how they relied on teammates to help through specific moments of ambiguity.

Design Abilities Used

Journey maps (of all types) are a great way to flex abilities around synthesizing information because they ask you to distill an experience into a simpflified visual, often mapping it onto a basic framework.Designing Your Design Work is all about intentionally making moves based on what your work needs at the moment. This exercise builds students' awareness around how they made choices looking back, and how they might make choices at similar junctions in future projects.


Both Emily Callaghan and Jess Munro helped evolve the ocean exploration metaphor over the course of our collaboration on design abilities tools.

Designed by:

Kelly Schmutte
Kelly Schmutte
Curriculum Designer and Lecturer, Stanford + Founder, PerfectFit Pointe

Design Abilities Used

Synthesize Information
Design Your Design Work
Learn More about Design Abilities 


This work is the original work of the Designer(s). It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit:

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