Are You Afflicted By ‘Informed Assumptions’?

As service designers we are constantly talking about co-creation and looking at the world from the viewpoint of the end user for whatever service or product we want to create or improve. The most important way to actually embody this viewpoint is to gather data, both qualitative and quantitative, using all the means at your disposal to build better outcomes that meet the user’s needs. This doesn’t mean that assumptions about customer behaviours, desires or needs aren’t used at some points of the journey. But, and this is a big but, two things need to happen. 1) You need to openly acknowledge that they are assumptions. Everyone on the team needs to accept that they are assumptions. And 2) the team needs to be willing and able to test these assumptions and open to be proven wrong. This can be a big ask for experienced professionals.

While being tested, these assumptions can be employed alongside the other research that you have done to plug gaps in knowledge so that you can move your work forward through prototyping and testing and back to research and iteration again. Along the way discarding what is proven to be a false flag and keeping what you are able to verify.

The wrong path

It is human nature to think that, through your long experience, you “know” what is wrong. This is what we, the authors of this article, have dubbed “informed assumptions”. The difference between the assumptions that we mentioned in the previous paragraph (useful or useable) and informed assumptions is 1) the willingness to accept these as assumptions rather than knowledge and 2) openness to be proven wrong. These unexamined informed assumptions are more of an affliction or disease that arrests the process and will lead you down the wrong path if not properly tested.

Unfortunately, with our many years of experience of working in the higher education sector, we have seen many ‘fall ill’ with informed assumptions. There are a few standard reasons that some people (especially senior and middle managers) use to justify why they made crucial decisions purely on what they ‘know’ (or think they know) about user needs. These are almost always a form of “informed assumptions” and include old chestnuts like “we know who our users are” or “we know what ‘they’ want from our service or product” through to “I know I’m right” (yes, really!), “I know my customers”, “My part of this process is not broken, it’s them over there that need to change” and the ultimate shutdown — “This is how we do things round here”.

A shift too far

This situation proves the saying “when you assume, it makes an ass of u and me”. But it can be difficult to get a solid professional to move from “I know what the problem is and how we can solve it” to ‘I have an idea what the problem might be but let’s test it and discover the real problem” which is still a shift too far for some.

This shift can be stilted for a number of reasons. They may well truly believe that they have the answer. They could be working to specific targets (of course they are!) which can often force them to focus on something that will be measured rather than the actual thing that will provide quality and value to the user. They may be nervous to show vulnerability — ‘I don’t know’ is a difficult stance in an organization that encourages a competitive leadership environment. It’s not easy to be ‘agile and responsive’ if your next pay rise is dependent on you reaching departmental and/or personal targets that are set outside of knowing what you will need to be agile and responsive to and that were agreed with your boss at your annual personal development review last year.

Solving the right problem

So how can we tackle the affliction of informed assumptions?

One important way to tackle this insidious affliction is to encourage and employ an entrepreneurial mindset or entrepreneurial approach. This is vital to creating a team and work environment that is productive, responsive, and most importantly, focused on creating value.

It is through developing and utilizing the tools of the Entrepreneurial Mindset or the Entrepreneurial Approach, important life wide skills, such as creativity, tolerance of uncertainty, openness to learning, seeing value in failure, pro-activeness and networking, as well as intrinsic motivation and confidence that what we do matters.

Luckily for the next generations, one of the 21st century foundations of education that is different than previous decades and eras is the recognition of the importance of these skills and attributes. Now we just need to run this up the flag pole to the higher authorities in higher education and help them understand that there is value in not knowing the answer and doing proper research so we can surface and solve the right problems.

This piece was co-authored by Pamela Spokes, a service designer based in Helsinki Finland, and Director at Discover Design Do and Jean Mutton, who is based in Derby in the UK, and is one of the co-founders of the Service Design in Education network. Pamela and Jean are open to continuing this conversation and can be reached via LinkedIn.

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