Ontological Uncertainty and the Expansion of Experience

 “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.” – Henry Ford

“…  A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
– Steve Jobs

These two famous quotes articulate one of the most vexing issues innovators and entrepreneurs face when they transform concepts into reality. People don’t really know what they want until they have experienced it. To illustrate this phenomenon, think about a new service that will order, and pay for, things that you want without your having to tell it, without your prior knowledge and before you’ve even thought of ordering the thing yourself. How do you feel about this? Would you like it? Hate it? Would you try it? What is your prediction about how this service will be adopted, by who, how quickly?

The situation presented above is a good example of what innovation researcher David Lane calls ‘Ontological Uncertainty’[i]. In his work on Artifacts and Organization, Lane states that there are two types of innovation, the better, faster cheaper type and one he calls new attributes of functionality. Within the new attributes of functionality category he includes what he calls performative functions, an example of which are retail functions, functions performed by the actions and behaviors of people rather than the product or service being used. Functionality, in Lane’s definition, includes not only the atoms and bits of products and services but the rules of human behavior that are often a major determinant of an experience. Changing or adding to these functions (i.e. innovating new functions) leads to what he calls ontological uncertainty. This is a different type of uncertainty than what we are normally used to. It is an uncertainty in which you are introducing a new ‘term’ or category into the currently used ontology, a term or category that is unknown and unfamiliar to others and therefore needs to be not only learned but incorporated into an individual’s mental framework and made relevant.

As Lane states, these new types of artifacts produce a different type of uncertainty than we are normally used to. Many types of uncertainty have a corollary in an individual’s existing ontological framework and therefor have analogs that can be studied and projected from. This different type of uncertainty is unlike the previous in that it cannot be probablized. The meaning of the artifact is unknown and unfamiliar (at first) and therefore it is impossible to predict the value that will emerge. It is possible however, according to Lane, to estimate the generative potential of these new artifacts (with their new functionalities) without knowing specifically what is going to be generated.

Ontological Uncertainty  and the Expansion of Experiences

The identification of ontological uncertainty is certainly interesting, but how might this insight be practically applied? If the concept of artifact functionality (including performative functionality) is recast into the concept of experience – the human felt outcome of the functionality – it immediately makes clear that what is being discussed is the introduction of new experiences and how different those experiences are from what people have experienced previously and their mental model of their previous experiences.

  • Ontological Uncertainty. The state that results when a new experience doesn’t fit nicely into existing mental models of how things work and remembered experiences.

Ontological uncertainty is therefore caused when a new artifact creates a new experience that is unfamiliar to the potential adopters. The degree of uncertainty depends on the degree of newness of the experience to the adopter. This definition of ontological uncertainty is one that resonates with anyone who has tried to introduce a disruptive innovation into the world or into an organization. One of the most difficult things to do is to try and explain what the new world will be like, what people’s experiences will be, when the innovation is made real. The more radical the new experience, the more difficult it is to get others to understand it without actually experiencing it.

The Experiental Dimension

Once the concept of ontological uncertainty is defined as the expansion of experience, a dimension and scale that lets us estimate how ‘new’ an experience is can be created. This scale might look something like the following.

Experience Dimension

On one end of the scale are those easy to process experiences that are a change in an existing and well known experience. Something is faster, more responsive, easier to use etc., but you know what to expect. On the other end of the scale are hard to process experiences that are entirely new, in other words a new category or dimension of experience that you have never encountered before.

If the ontological dimension of an opportunity is defined as referring to the experiences created by the developed artifacts in the mind of the adopter, then a critical aspect of experience is when a new category is introduced. This happens when a new artifact creates an experience in the adopter that the adopter has not had before and therefore has a difficult time categorizing in their internal model of the world. It is these instances, when a new category of experience is introduced, that is precisely what Henry Ford and Steve Jobs were talking about in the quotes above.

Consider a recent example that illustrates all degrees of experience ‘newness’ – the introduction of the Kindle e-reader. The Kindle introduced enhancements to existing experiences (e.g. buying a book), existing experience category expansion (e.g. reading electronically) and new categories of experience (e.g. taking electronic notes, not being able to share etc.) into the act of reading. Technically Kindle wasn’t the first e-reader but one can argue that it was the first to integrate the complete reading experience all the way from selecting and purchasing through reading and commenting. Reading early reviews of the Kindle[ii] one is struck by the way in which the reviewers and commenters are trying to make sense out of this new experience. Do they like it or don’t they? How does the experience relate to that of reading a paper book (and other e-books)? What are the experiences that matter, either positive or negative? In reading these reviews and others that came out in 2007 when the original Kindle was introduced, one can see the process of a new experience category being born and the ontological uncertainty of this new experience being worked out in real-time.

Why Ontological Uncertainty Matters

The expansion of experience, and the ontological uncertainty it creates, can be, and often is, a major source of predictive variability  and decision confusion on the part of both external adopters (e.g. customers) and internal adopters (e.g. the stakeholders, sponsors and executives that fund and promote new developments within companies). In general, the more strategic the innovation[iii], the more it will create new experiences that fall on the right end of the scale above and hence the more uncertain and problematic the innovation will be for both the external and the internal adopter.

This uncertainty can be a major contributor to the complexity of an opportunity and a company’s caution in pursuing it. Does the opportunity create one or more new categories of experience or stretch or redefine an existing category of experience? Is the opportunity something that adopters need to learn how to experience? If the answer to one or both of these questions is yes, then the opportunity will most likely create problems for the company that will pursue it unless that company has developed the mechanisms to deal with this uncertainty.

Effective mechanisms to deal with ontological uncertainty is an area for interesting future research and development. These new mechanisms probably will not look very much like traditional mechanisms such as stage-gate processes used for new product development (NPD). Indeed, some of the recent interest in storytelling and experience design are most likely driven by at least a tacit acknowledgement of a need to do a better of explaining what a new experience is likely to be and to feel like. As the ability to identify, discuss, categorize, and measure experiences improves, the ability to think of and implement truly unique and compelling new offerings and business models that create these new experiences will also improve, both for the customer and for the organization that comes up with the innovaton.

[i] David Lane; Artifacts and Organization, A Complexity Perspective

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