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What is an assumption?
It's not always possible to gather all the necessary information about users or their environment before beginning a project. That's why assumptions are a natural aspect of almost every product development and research.
An assumption is a statement that is accepted to be true without evidence. In general, we use assumptions when we don't have enough data or experience to base our next step. The goal of making an assumption is to move forward with a design solution or process even when we don't fully understand the issue at hand.
When do we make assumptions in the design process?
We make assumptions at every stage of the research process that starts our project or when we want to revise previous solutions. Based on the Agile methodology, we can mention four steps that create our Knowledge Board – where we form assumptions and validate them. Here they are:
1. Formulate Research Questions
Every assumption starts with a research question. You can create a list of questions to brainstorm later with the team.
For instance, we can ask:
- Who are we going to recruit for research interviews and surveys?
- How do we construct questions asked during interviews?
- What features would our users be interested in?
- How would our customers use our product?
Research questions help to realize what we don't know.
2. Make assumptions
It’s good to invite all the team to brainstorm together research questions. It can help you to formulate assumptions and identify knowledge gaps. We can base this phase on our experience, knowledge, and observations and on previously collected data - it can be both from early user research, created persona, or information delivered by stakeholders.
The level of assumption can go from a wild guess (with no data, pure guessing) to a semi-informed guess based on some data research.
When beginning your research, document your assumptions and add them to the related research question. It is essential to include the following information for each research question:
- Created assumptions
- What information are these assumptions based on? (data from stakeholders, interviews, persona, wild guessing)
- What are the next steps for the research (e.g., web analytics, interviews, surveys, usability testing)?
Based on the previously asked research questions, you can make assumptions like this:
- Most likely, our users will be engineering students.
- They'll be able to understand technical jargon.
- They'll prefer to use the product's features to track user preferences, connect to social media, log in by Gmail, and change the product's appearance.
- They'll prefer the mobile version of the product.
Assumptions show what we think we know.
In UX research, we use them to fill in gaps in our information about users and their needs. For example, designing an app for a homeless shelter might assume that users have limited access to technology. This assumption lets us move forward with creating wireframes and prototypes for a mobile-first experience.
Assumptions help narrow down what needs to be tested or validated by accurate data before deciding how something should look or function in its final form.
3. Test assumptions
After documenting assumptions and identifying the next steps for gathering data, you're ready to conduct research and test your hypotheses. Choose the proper research method to validate your assumptions.
For example, you can validate assumptions by observing how people use the app via usability testing or interviews. E.g., If we find out that most clients actually own smartphones but rarely have access to WiFi, our assumption of mobile-first design will no longer work. We'll need to rethink our design solution based on new information.
When your research is complete, you will be able to follow two directions: identify whether or not your original assumptions were wrong.
- If your assumptions were wrong - you need additional information, revise them and continue testing them until you can prove them.
- If your assumptions were validated, you could go to the fourth step - factual statements.
4. Factual statements
Turning assumptions into facts should be the natural cycle of every guess in the product design process. You can turn validated assumptions into factual statements. Document them by writing down:
- research questions
- formulated assumption
- findings from research
- factual statements
What are the Pros and Cons of assumptions?
Assumptions can be convenient in the design process. They can help to make the research faster and more directed.
They can also be dangerous. Problems arise when teams are unaware of their assumptions or don’t treat their guessing as hypotheses that need to be tested with actual data. These problems can lead to team decisions based on incorrect assumptions, which can have serious consequences.
The goal of every assumption is to test them and document them carefully. That can help develop the product well-researched in a proper, fact-based way.
March Stephanie, User Research. Improve product and service design and enhance your UX research. Second edition, London-New York 2022.
Howell Lang and Emma, Researching UX: User Research, Cambridge 2017
Krause Rachel, Tracking Research Questions, Assumptions, and Facts in Agile, Nielsen Norman Group
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