Assumptions – how to find, track and eliminate them

Assumptions can kill a project. Like a house built on sand we don’t know when and where it will collapse.
The problem with assumptions is that they disguise as truths. We believe them. They are the project’s reality. Just like the matrix.
Assumptions are shortcuts. Guesses at reality. We cannot fully grasp reality, so we assume. But we can find evidence for our decisions. For this we need to uncover the assumptions, assess their risk and gather evidence. But how do we know what we assume?

Find assumptions

Watch your language

‘I think’, ‘In my opinion’, ‘should be’, ‘roughly’, ‘circa’ are all clues for assumptions. Decisions need to be based on evidence. When we use vague language or personal opinions to describe our project we need to pause. Under this lurks insecurity and assumptions.
Another red flag are metaphors. Metaphors might be great to present, paint a picture in our head or describe a vision. But in decision making they are too abstract and meaningless. We may use them to describe our strategy but when we need to design and implement we need borders that constrain our decisions. Metaphors usually cover only some aspects of the project and vice versa. There’s a mismatch. We need concrete language without ambiguity.

Be dumb

We know so much that we think others have the same experience, education, view point, familiarity, proficiency and imprinting. We know so little that we think the other way is also true. We transfer. We assume. Dare to ask dumb questions. Adopt a beginner’s mind. Challenge traditions and common beliefs.
We take age old decisions for granted. They were made by people smarter than us, so they must be right. Don’t do this. Question them. Even the obvious ones.
In the book ‘Hidden in plain sight’ Jan Chipchase enters a typical cafe where people sit and talk, drink coffee and typing on their laptops. The question he poses: should the coffeshop owner sell diapers? So that everybody can continue what they do without the need to go to the bathroom. This question challenges our cultural and imprinted beliefs. And this is good.

Be curious

Ask: why? We need to get to the root of the problem. Dig deeper. Often under layers of reasoning and thoughtful decisions lies an assumption. The chain is only so strong as its weakest link. If we started with an assumption, the reasoning building on it is also assumed. Children often ask why and don’t stop even when we think it is all said and logical. So when we find the root, we need to continue to ask: is this really the root? Why is it the way it is.
Another question we need to ask repeatedly is: what if? What if: our target audience changes? we try to follow the opposite of the goals of our project? what if the technology changes?

Change perspectives

We see what we want to see. Seeing is an active process. We can stretch our thinking only so far. To stretch it even further we need to change roles. For just some hours do the work our users do. Feel their pains. Their highs and lows.
Or adopt the role of the browser. Good interfaces are conversations. Play a dialog with your user. Be the browser.
Only by embracing constraints of other perspectives we can force ourselves to stretch. In this way we find things which are assumed by us because of our view of the world.

Track them

After we have collected the assumptions we need to track them to later prove or disprove them. For this a simple spreadsheet or table is sufficient. This learning plan consists of 5 columns (taken from Leah Buley’s The UX Team of one):

  • the assumption: what we believe is true
  • the certainty: a 3 or 5 point scale showing how sure we are that we are right
  • notes: additional notes of why we think the assumption is right or wrong
  • the evidence: results which we collected to support this assumption
  • the research: things we can do to collect further evidence

Eliminate them

Now that we know what we assume and with which certainty we think we are right, we can start to collect further information to support or disprove our claims. In short: We research. Research can take many different forms. But all forms are there to gain further insights. Some basic forms we use to bring light into the darkness of uncertainty are:

  • Stakeholder interviews
  • (Contextual) user interviews
  • Heuristic evaluation
  • Prototyping
  • Market research

Other methods we don’t use (yet) include:

  • A/B tests (paired with analytics)
  • User tests

The point behind all these methods is to build a chain of reasoning. Everything in our software needs a reason to exist. The users and the stakeholders are the primary sources of insight. But also our experience, the human psychology and common patterns or conventions help us to decide which way to go.
Not only the method of collecting is important but also how the results are documented. We should present the essential information in a way that it is easy to get a glimpse of it just by looking at the respective documents. On the other side we should all keep this pragmatic and not go overboard. Our goal is to get insight and not build a proof of the system.

One thought on “Assumptions – how to find, track and eliminate them

  1. Pingback: From Agile to UX: a change in perspective | Schneide Blog

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