We assume a world that isn't there
We live in a world where we don’t have perfect information. There are many things we don’t know, but still have to consider when making decisions. This means, that we fill the gaps in our knowledge of the world with assumptions. Assumptions are pieces of information we take as true, although they are unknown.
There are three kinds of assumptions
- Known assumptions
- Unknown assumptions
- Implicit assumptions
Known assumptions are those where we know them to be unknown. They are sometimes called the known unknowns. We assume something and know it to be only an approximation. We can tell how confident we are into the assumption and adopt our behavior accordingly.
They are the most easy to work with. We can design hypothesis and experiments (see this article) and test them. We can also gauge, how relevent they are and how much effort we should put into verifying them.
An example would be to think, that our users buy our product for a specific reason, although we didn’t test it yet.
Those are the assumptions we don’t know we have. They are often called the unknown unknowns. This has usually one of two reasons:
- We see them as facts
- We are unaware of us thinking that way
We seem them as facts might be something like “the sky is blue”. The sky isn’t actually blue, it’s violet, but we can’t see that. Whenever our conviction in an assumption is high enough, we see them as facts. We tend to underestimate, how many things we actually don’t know.
Even more common are beliefs, that we are unaware of. These are often cultural beliefs or things, that everyone around us takes for granted. People working in another culture for some time often discover this. Many of their unknown assumptions get challenged.
“When I pay people to do something, they will do it”.
It’s actually much more nuanced than that and the causality is simply not given. But we often don’t think about it until faced with a conflicting reality.
Similar is the assumption of “I like my product, so others will too”. If you say it out loud, it becomes obviously false. At best others like it too and maybe you have similar reasons. But until you say it out loud, many people work with the assumption, even though it’s wrong.
You can’t discover your own unknown assumptions. You can only observe, how people behave and see, if it conflicts with how you view the world. That’s why good user interviews are so helpful. They uncover your unknown assumptions.
These are kind of a hybrid of the other two. You may know something to be an assumption. But knowledge is linked. Therefore, it contains knowledge, that you don’t think about. And this knowledge is an implicit assumption.
The tricky part: You often don’t think about the implications. This can lead to you not seeing conflicts and not reacting to the implicit assumption.
Let’s assume you have a product that sells for more than 100.000€. Your assumption is, that this is a valid price and people will pay it.
The implicit element is, that there is a person that can make the purchase decision. People that can decide, wether to spend 100.000€, are usually senior management or the owner of a company. On average, they are older and prefer less risk.
The implicit assumption is, that you take care of the purchase decision appearing to be safe. And as you can see, that’s a totally different assumption.
You may have the additional assumption, that you have a technological advanced product. The implicit element in new technology is a high risk of failure. So there might be a conflict you are not aware of.
One way to handle implicit assumptions is by mapping your assumptions. Collect them, describe them in more detail and check for implicit elements. Then check for conflicts and see wether this matches your behaviour.
A word of caution
Working with your own assumptions should always serve a dedicated purpose. Don’t do it just for the intellectual excercise. This is a risk management tool. Don’t use it everywhere. But use it, where the stakes are high (like product development). Building on top of false assumptions can get real expensive real quick.