In Praise of Assumptions

Whether or not you think that “user-centred design” is generally a good way of  designing a web site, most would agree that before doing any real design work, you first need to listen. Ideally, you should listen to the people who will be using your site. At the very least, you should listen to some or other form of research that can give you ideas about suitable design directions to follow. When it comes to design, selflessness is the goal. Alan Cooper has based a large part his career on this idea. Love you, Alan.

The trouble is, it’s practically impossible to keep your own opinion out of the picture when coming up with solutions to design problems.  No matter how much research you do, personas you create, or lab sessions you run, research alone cannot tell you exactly what to do in terms of the detail of the design itself. So the practical effect of research is to lead you make assumptions. Of course, the hope is that these assumptions are correct. On the other hand, some people  make a virtue of  not trying to listen too much, and instead relying mainly on their personal opinions to produce good designs. Apple, 37Signals and I’m sure various others, are among these. What they do is simply bring assumptions out into the open.

I have often regarded these two positions as opposites. User-centered, research-led design verses the “usage-centred”, benevolent design dictator. Both clearly have their merits and have produced successes. Interestingly however, it appears rather tricky to come up with a clear example of success for the user-centred approach, and when it comes to “great design”,  it is Apple that is invariably cited. The assumption is that Apple don’t do UCD, and instead champion the benevolent dictator approach: Steve Jobs as God, Jonathan Ive as his representative on earth.

Recently, however, I have been thinking about a “third way” on this. Can we combine the strengths of research with the pixie dust of opinionated design, and the clear design triumphs this is said to produce? I think the answer is that we can. The key to this is to bring out your assumptions first, then use research to validate those assumptions over time.

The basic technique is simple. Write down all the assumptions you have about your customers, the way they act, what they want, what they don’t want, what things work and what things don’t. Try to catalogue every assumption you have. Do this regardless of whether you have anything to actually prove these things or not. Feel free to throw in a few opinions you think others may have but that you think are wrong. Anything and everything that has been lurking in your head about the design overall. Remember, these are just assumptions – at least at first.

Quite quickly you will have a list of many things like this:

  • Showing lots of discounted products and sale items on the home page raises conversion.
  • People don’t scroll beyond the fold.
  • Too many 3rd party banner ads put people off.
  • Price is not the only determinant of conversion.
  • Most people come to the site from Google.

Now, using whatever means necessary, seek to prove or disprove these assumptions over time. Each time you do any research, or discover anything that relates to an assumption, you give that assumption a plus or a minus point. If you think people don’t scroll below the fold, but see them doing just that without comment in a user test, note that fact against the assumption.

Of course, simply observing one thing that validates or invalidates an assumption isn’t enough. You have to corroborate, triangulate and pile on the data. Eventually, you will decide that you have enough supporting evidence to say confidently that something is a valid or invalid assumption. In doing so  you will be given ammunition for design directions, ideas for further research, and of course stimuli for further (or just more granular) assumptions to validate.

The primary advantage to this approach is that it aides continuity. No longer will you commission research which you then pick over to see if anything seems interesting. Instead, that research can be directed to further the validation process around the assumptions you have about that home page. Assumptions, you will remember, that were the reason the home page looks like it does in the first place.

So – I’m going to assume that the above is a great way of doing things until I get some feedback that convinces me it’s not.  I’m lucky that very few, if any, UX professionals read this blog – so I may be blissfully ignorant for some time.