How to Dial Back Assumptions and Get Specific

Build a problem-solving plan of attack with this activity.

James Carter / April 26, 2016

Assumptions can influence the decisions we make in business. They can lead to new ideas, strategies and innovations. They can turn perceived threats into avoidable mistakes. And at times, they can even help us make educated guesses with the information we have available.

But when planning a client project, the fewer assumptions agencies have, the closer we are to the truth. In our next installment of this series, we want to focus on getting rid of myths, assumptions, and half-truths that might plague your next design project. We do this with an exercise we’ve named "Problem reversals." It's a process that relies on utilizing your knowledge and information about your business.

We start by examining the problem you're facing, then we question the outcome if we don't take action, and your business experience helps us fill in the gaps. This process gets us closer to finding out the truth behind what's troubling your company and what we need to do to fix it.

We aren't saying your initial problems aren't valid. What we're trying to do is uncover the underlying issues that are below the surface. Once we find them and understand them, assumption free, then we can propose a design solution.

Setting the stage

Try this out the next time you're planning a design project. We’ve found that clients end up using this activity in their everyday decision-making process once introduced. It’s almost a no-brainer.

Materials you’ll need:

• A conference room or meeting space.

• A whiteboard or giant Post-it notes.

• Dry Erase markers.

• A stopwatch or something to track time.

• The information that is relevant to this project. (Stats, examples, samples you’ve created.)

• No more than 1 hour. (You might take a lunch break to complete this exercise.)

• The team members that will be working with the agency on this project.

• The Alternate, The Timekeeper, The Narrator.

The Alternate

We picked this up from the design team over at Google Ventures, and it improves the activity tenfold. Find one person on the team who usually has a different opinion than everyone else. As GV describes them:

"They see problems differently from everyone else. Their crazy idea about solving the problem might just be right. And even if it’s wrong, the presence of a dissenting view will push everyone else to do better work.”

They aren't necessary for this exercise. But, if they’re available, their perspective adds another layer of success to this activity.

This person is easy to spot. When it's time to make decisions, they'll have a different view that shakes things up. It’s better if you don't tell them their role in the activity. Informing them of their role puts the person on the spot, and might taint their response and perspective. You might find that other people will step up and become wild card of the group. But if you’ve chosen correctly, this is something that comes naturally to The Alternate.

The Timekeeper

One person should be responsible for managing and enforcing the time. You want to keep the meeting time down to an hour or less. We find that the longer meetings go on, the less interested people are in what you’re there to do.

The Narrator

One person should write down the responses and administer the exercise. It’s usually better if that person is not the founder or the CEO of the company. You'll need their knowledge and attention for the activity.

Now that we have all the pieces and players in order let’s begin.

Step 1: List the project problems (10 Minutes)

On your whiteboard or a giant Post-it note, title the page “Known Problems.”

Below this title, list the problems you hope this project will solve. These are the reasons the project exist in the first place.

Here are some questions we ask clients to get them thinking:

• Why you’re looking for an agency in the first place?

• Why isn't this project done internally?

• What’s currently performing poorly in the business that needs a design or redesign?

• Why do you think that's the case?

• In what areas do you think a creative agency will improve the problem you’re having?

You might not have a straight answer, and that's alright. Focus on what you know about the project. Our goal is to get as close to the truth as we possibly can.

Step 2: Reverse the problem (20 mins)

This part of the process gives your team a chance to discuss the issues you're facing and what you expect design to fix.

Review each problem on your list and answer this question:

“If we don't do anything, what happens?”

Write your responses down next to each problem. For teams of six or more, decide on the top three answers and write those down.

Step 3: Discover the truth (20-30 mins max)

We've reached the most important part of the activity. Here's where you'll determine if you're perceptions are a reality. Because of which, we give this step the most time. You'll need that time to do some research.

For each response listed, answer these questions:

1. “Is our response proven to be true?”

2. “What information do we have that makes this true?”

This can be a little tricky, so let's break down what we've done so far and what we're looking to do.

Let's say your online flower business is shopping around for a website redesign. In doing step one, you think your site is pushing customers away and causing you to lose business.

Your team follows step two of this activity and asks "What happens if we do nothing?" You believe that not investing in a redesign, will result in a loss of more customers.

Step three asks you to prove it this assumption to be true. And this is where your expertise, data, and information come in. You want to find the data that identifies your website as the culprit.

Maybe your research leads you to a review of your sales pipeline. There you find that your site wasn't the issue and that customers are signing up for your newsletter, but you're not onboarding them. With no communication from you, they unsubscribe.

Maybe you look at your site traffic and find that there's a steady stream new users. But people just have a hard getting through the checkout, and so your abandonment rate is high.

Remember The Alternate?

Maybe The Alternate disagrees with your assumption. She feels there's not enough data on the matter and suggests creating a usability test to figure out what's going on. That was a pretty solid idea. See why she's so important?

When we do this exercise with clients, The Alternate usually shines here. They provide the one insight that changes the way we think about the problem.

When we ask “Ok so if we don't take action here, you’re saying _____will happen. Is this right?” The Alternate usually responds with something like “Not exactly, we have these other options available.” Thus making the assumption false and allowing us to dig deeper into the problem.

Planning better projects

Proving your assumptions to be true leads you on a quest to pinpoint where your project needs really exists. Again, we aren't saying you're wrong; there are just levels to the problem. And you should be able to identify the change after the design is complete.

Continue this exercise as many times as you need. Make sure all problems are either proven valid or revealed to be just assumptions. These validations will be the basis of your proposal. An agency can now examine the business problems and design a proper strategy to address them.

Figuring out the specifics of your project means clarifying what you need vs. what you think you need. The clearer the communication, the closer you, your team, and your agency are to success.

If you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and share it with friends and colleagues. I'd appreciate it.

CREDIT: Knapp, Jake, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz. Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. Print. Fera, Rae Ann.
IMAGE BY: Jeff Sheldon