How to recognize assumptions and decide if they’re the right ones
Hands up if you’ve ever relocated to a new city, country, or even continent. It’s super-exciting, but at times can be overwhelming, right? There’s so much to take on board. Last year I moved from a sleepy English village to the bright lights of Montreal. And I had a lot of questions…
- Why do Montrealers start a sentence in English and finish it in French?
- Will it ever stop snowing?
- How do I pay my bills?
- Why do they sell milk in a bag?
These are basics of life in Canada, and they make sense to Canadians, so they assumed they’d make sense to me. But they didn’t, because I had no context.
And in content strategy and design, we make assumptions like this every day. For example, we assume that our developers know about our content guidelines.
Or we make assumptions about our users’ work environments.
Yes, assumptions can be dangerous, and wrong assumptions can cause projects to fail, but maybe they’re the exceptions that give the others a bad rep.
I mean, we all believe in assuming positive intent, right?
In reality, we make thousands of assumptions every day. All kinds of tiny things, like when we turn on the tap, water is going to come out. Assumptions are part our our decision-making strategy.
At a Shopify event in 2018, Cynthia Savard Saucier, who co-wrote the book Tragic Design, and Alëna Iouguina gave a talk on the science behind decision making. Super-interesting stuff about how the brain works to make decisions. And they concluded that “A decision, even a bad one, is still way better than no decision at all”.
And as content strategists we sometimes need to make fast decisions. It can be a good thing to be opinionated. And this means making a few assumptions along the way. But is there a right way and a wrong way to make assumptions?
Let’s look at how to make them the right way, so you can make the right decisions for your users. We’ll do this in three steps…
1. It’s OK to make assumptions
Back when I was at university, one of my majors was Philosophy. Like other things I experienced at university, philosophy was quite confusing.
I’d imagined the greatest minds in human evolution, building on each other’s work, striving to reach an ethical and social nirvana.
But I was wrong.
Take for example Descartes, and his famous “Cogito ergo sum” — “I think therefore I am”. If you google “I think therefore I am is wrong” there are over 200 million results.
Philosophy is basically these smart people point-scoring and trolling each other.
So in the 1800s a group of American philosophers, who named themselves Pragmatists, decided to try something different. They said we can’t keep questioning everything forever. Let’s accept some basic assumptions so we can move forwards. And they gave themselves some principles to baseline their assumptions.
- There is no universal truth since everyone experiences their own world and environments in their own way, at their own time, in a variety of situations
- If something seems to work satisfactorily, then assume that it does work satisfactorily
- Always allow for the possibility that a more effective solution will be found
And what’s interesting is that these principles directly align with resources that are available to content strategists.
- User personas, journey mapping…
- Data, testing…
- Design crits, UX research…
The pragmatists had their principles to support their decision making. In content strategy we have all these resources to support ours.
If I just say, “I think this content will work because my opinions are great,” then that’s dangerous.
But if I say, “I think this content will work because it fits in with previous journey mapping we’ve done, we have positive data on similar content, and it aligns with our research thinking,” then that’s some strong supporting evidence, and a pretty fair assumption to make.
And this is our first step when towards making use of assumptions in our content design. Knowing that if you baseline them using these resources, then it can be ok to make assumptions.
2. Make inclusive assumptions
Are you ready for a context switch? You’re a content strategist, of course you are.
Back in the UK we have Mountain Rescue Teams who are groups of volunteers that help people who are lost or hurt in the mountains. Like all good project teams, they do a retro at the end of each incident and make it available online. Some are funny…
Some aren’t so funny.
In 2007, Jennifer and Christopher Parratt, who described themselves as experienced hikers, drove from Oxford, up to the mountains in North Wales.
They bought themselves a map, a compass, and a guidebook, and set off to hike a mountain called Tryfan. The guidebook said it was “easy”, but there isn’t an easy way up Tryfan. In the last 30 years, 17 people have died on Tryfan.
They lost their way and Christopher Parrott slipped, and fell to his death.
The coroner’s inquest was unusual, because the guidebook they bought was specifically criticized. “The title ‘Tryfan The Easy Way’ is extremely misleading”. The map was virtually impossible to follow.
Having read the book, it’s clear that it contains a series of assumptions. The first one was just one word, “easy” — without that they probably wouldn’t have decided to go up Tryfan in the first place. Then the assumptions were piled one on top of the other, each one making the situation more dangerous.
And what’s interesting for us in content strategy, is that all of these assumptions could be made safer by being more intentional about how content is created.
- User needs analysis to identify the problem we’re trying to solve
- Information architecture to make sure the content is findable
- Naming patterns to avoid confusion or ambiguity, and user testing to see if the solution is performing as expected
- All of these help to make our assumptions safer
Like a guidebook writer, our role in content strategy is to look after our users. To take them on a journey and guide them through safely.
Compare that guide with this online one, which makes safe, inclusive assumptions.
- The readers might be beginners, so it doesn’t say it’s easy
- It says it can be dangerous
- It gives it’s readers a map
- And it gives detailed step-by-step instructions AND photos
The writer understands that for each user it’s the same route, but a different journey. And this is very important, he keeps the content clear and simple.
At Shopify we write for the average US reading age, which is 12–13 years old. And there’s a very good reason we do this.
“Shopify merchants are busy people who may be running their online business in addition to having a full-time job, managing their family life, and doing a million other things. They’re also located all over the world, have varying levels of literacy, and some may not speak English as their first language.”
By using plain language we’re making a safe assumption.
Or as Sarah Richards so beautifully puts it “It’s not dumbing down, it’s opening up.”
When you build a new feature, or design for a new market, be intentional about your content, and make safe, inclusive assumptions. Design for everyone. Don’t leave anyone behind.
3. Check your assumptions
I recently worked on a project where we made an assumption. It didn’t seem like it was a biggie.
We’d improved a feature, and intended to turn it on for all our users.
We knew that most of them wanted it, and that some wouldn’t. So we sent them all an email a week before the launch, with an opt-out option. And we assumed they’d read the email.
Problem was, 40% of the emails bounced and only 22% of the emails were opened. That set alarm bells ringing. It meant lots of people didn’t know we were turning this on for them. As one team member commented… “that’s not ideal”.
But it was a valuable learning moment. It’s true that in design and tech we like to have fun. In Shopify’s offices there’s a slide, and a room with a giant polar bear in it, and I have my fingers crossed that we’ll be getting a bowling alley next.
But we’re all adults as well, and responsible for our own decisions. We as a team were responsible and we should have challenged ourselves sooner.
And I’m going to share with you a great exercise we use at Shopify for doing just that — the assumption slam! We use this to challenge our foundational beliefs about a project.
A wise person (not me) once said “The hardest assumption to challenge is the one you don’t even know you are making.”
An assumption slam helps you to uncover those hidden assumptions. So how this works is, you get your project team together in a room and brainstorm all the assumptions that you’ve been making in the project. As you’re doing it, write them all down on sticky notes, like how you’d do in a design sprint or a retro. So common assumptions might be things like:
- I believe my users have a need to ____________.
- I believe these needs can be solved with ____________.
- I believe the #1 value a user wants to get out of this is ____________.
- I believe the user can also get these additional benefits ___________.
- I believe my biggest product risk is ____________.
Spend 10 to 15 minutes on this, with each person individually writing down all the assumptions they think the team is making. When you’re done, share them by putting them all up on the wall. You might find that you’re making a surprising number of assumptions.
So to make them easier to manage you can group and categorize them into themes. When you have a manageable set of assumptions you can turn to your assumption grid. Which, being the organized content strategist that you are, you prepared earlier.
As a team, take each of your grouped assumptions, and place them on the grid based on how much you already know about them, and how risky they are if they go wrong.
- Low risk means nothing much can go wrong.
- High-risk is if it could affect your relationships with your customers.
- Really high risk is if it could affect their relationship with their customers.
And you should end up with something similar to this. Hopefully without so many high-risk unknowns.
And now you can prioritize what you do with them.
- Low-risk knowns you can ignore, they’re just distractions.
- High-risk knowns you should include in your project planning.
- Low-risk unknowns. They’re not critical, but time allowing try to understand more about them.
- High-risk unknowns, these are the spicy ones. These need to be evaluated. Carry out research on them, test your thinking out on users, and so on. The more you know, the less risky they’ll become.
“Does it work?” I hear you ask. Well, last your we ran an assumption slam on one of our products, Shopify Pay. You can use Shopify Pay to skip through checkouts without entering your details every time. The slam raised some difficult questions including:
- Are we giving users a clear value prop?
- Do they feel secure enough?
- Will they be freaked out by the lack of friction?
After the slam we went back to work and did more design and content explorations. We shared them at design crits. We did more user testing. We became more knowledgeable.
And when we were confident that no assumption was left unturned, we launched.
We monitored how it was performing. It worked. Our users were happy. One of those users was our COO, and he was really happy.
Now this success wasn’t entirely down to the assumption slam, but the slam was one of the tools we used in designing a successful, inclusive product.
OK, we’ve seen that there are right ways and wrong ways to make assumptions.
Next time you’re starting a project, remember that it is ok to use assumptions in your content strategy, as long as you take the time to check them, and to make them safe by using all the tools at your disposal.
And if you’re looking to run your own assumption slams, why not download our template deck to get you started.
Why assumptions are good for your content strategy was originally published in Shopify UX on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.