Arcs (of Uncertainty™)

Not Noah’s, but understanding how they work can save your narratives.


There are many arcs, some called story arcs, arcs of uncertainty, and more. Sometimes, they are not arcs at all. They are lines of thinking. Ways of making an audience follow along, stay interested, and be entertained.

The hard part is that they are generally difficult to create, edit, and manage when you are story-making. It is also true that this is challenging if you don’t think you think in arcs. We as humans love arcs; it’s how we are told and exist from birth to death, and arcs are used as literals and metaphors in nearly all aspects of our lives. Arcs are how we build, construct, fly, etc. There are no straight lines in storytelling.

When we venture to tell a story, any story, there are natural arcs that form in our heads.

Let’s take one arc as an example—the arc of uncertainty. I call it that because everything I have done in my work and personal life has one of these. Every new pitch or program has this arc in some form or another at work.

Arc fo Uncertainty
The arc of uncertainty

Down the left is the stages of an effort. Immersion is when we all have a sense of wonder and curiosity in a new project or pitch. Things are new and foreign; immerse in the whys, whos, and hows of the thing. So naturally, uncertainty goes up a little at first, and you’re new and more uncertain about everything, and the arc pitches up for a while. There is a time when choices, at least initial ones, are established. The arc bends down, and the call is scoped space, bounded effort, or something else in the time scope budget category. You are still uncertain but have enough to start.

There is a phase on the arc where initial ideas percolate. How might we? What ifs? Divergence can occur, and tangents, rabbit-holing, etc., are welcomed. Uncertainty is an opportunity here. Investigation and hypothesis-driven experimentation are warranted. POCs, prototypes, research trips (Creativity Inc., Style): You are drawing on the research and testing in all the flavors (user, tech, strategy, etc…). Investigation is a very powerful way to validate or invalidate ideation. Informal, fast-ish, and imperfect are how I have seen good things happen. Lower expectations and look in the cracks, under the rocks, the residue left behind after someone rants during a user interview.

I am often asked how a bit of research, some tech, and a strategy made a decision that impacted pixel placement. The answer is reasonably straightforward. All decisions in design come down to why. Why would we, why do we, why did they, why didn’t they, all the way asking makes even forces the design into existence. When you, as a team, ask why enough times, you either arrive at a cul-de-sac of circular thinking or the answer. The last or near last why get close, but you need to push beyond that last why as folks get agitated at all the whys. Well, why is that?

You will have arrived at the intuitive, emotional awareness that certainty and power can be conveyed to the human(s) who will suffer by what we make. There is a point on the arc of uncertainty where modeling begins, all types of modeling, from boxes and arrows to mental models, business models, and engineering models (ugly plumbing diagrams affectionately termed by me). That is where we are heading toward the decisions.

Decisions or choices are now becoming clearer, if not obvious. Arcs of uncertainty will all vary and be unique to the solution and expected utility of the effort. The decisions come down to a handful of considerations. Time, scope, and budget are precise dimensions of decisions. However, there are sets of decisions around maybe more subjective topics. Authenticity, control, certainty, power, joy, inspiration, achievement, part of something larger than yourself. These feelings and vibes are at the core of choices and decisions we make daily, many times a day.

When something is accomplished and deemed a success, it is accepted as so due in small part to maintaining time, scope, and budget. The larger part of success is around those somewhat softer elements of an experience. How does it make you feel? In my life and career, it has always puzzled me that emphasis on time, scope, and budget as a marker of the success of any effort is somehow more important or an actual measure at all versus how the experience makes you feel. Squishy, emotional stuff doesn’t make a difference. Well, that’s a lie. If you are on time, on budget, in scope, and you don’t feel anything, the effort was a failure/learning.

The most incredible experiences I have had or worked on were incredible, not because they were on time, stayed within budget, or delivered the scope. It’s how they made me feel: either working on them (designing is emotional) or using them (intuition is emotional).

At the ‘end’ of the arc of uncertainty lies certainty and the power to create something amazing that can mediate human experience in a compelling and meaningful way.

As always, if you made it down here, thank you, and good luck with your Arcs of Uncertainty™