Assumptions Can Sabotage Your Digital Product. Here’s How to Dig Deeper.

By Allison Sall
October 13, 2021

Designing a digital product is made up of a series of choices. From branding to UI enhancements, you’re constantly making decisions about how best to design a product your customers will love. Then, as you iterate and redesign, you lean on your institutional knowledge, analytics, and something more potent than you realize: assumptions.

You assume you know what your users want. You assume your product is easy and fun to use. You assume your latest feature adds value to your user experience. But designing based on assumptions can quickly lead to poor strategic choices — with servere consequences.

Acting on unchecked assumptions is a significant driver of design churn, low team morale, and discord among the team. Worse, it can lead to a product that your users don’t even like.

Luckily, there’s a way out. By identifying and testing your assumptions, you can find out what’s rooted in data and what’s not — and what you can do to fix it. When you break out of the cycle of making poor design decisions based on unfounded assumptions, better products and happier teams take shape.

Ready to kick those assumptions to the curb? Let’s do it.

How to Tell if Your Design Team is Caught in the Assumption Cycle

Around and around you go. Redesign after redesign, you can’t seem to make progress. As your team grapples with design churn, it’s easy to tell yourself that the redesign merry-go-round is a normal part of digital product creation.

Perfecting a UX flow and UI elements takes time, iteration, and collaboration — even a little bit of back and forth. Still, there’s a healthy amount of redesign and debate, and then there’s something else entirely.

For example, if you’re constantly redesigning the same features over and over without any measurable results, that’s a red flag. Likewise, if your team meetings feel like an echo chamber, sound the alarm! Or, if everyone on your team feels like their viewpoint is the best and no prominent leader is deciding when to forge ahead, guess what? It’s time to stop and reevaluate.

These scenarios are all red alerts that you’re knee-deep in unproven hypotheses and half-baked guesses. When you realize what you’re up against, that’s your cue to separate the knowns from the unknowns — and bust the assumptions causing trouble.

The Dangers of Building a Product Based on Unchallenged Assumptions

We all carry around assumptions that drive our day-to-day decisions. The consequences aren’t always dire. In fact, sometimes they are surprisingly pleasant, like assuming the traffic is far worse than it actually is. As a result, you end up at your destination earlier than you planned, leaving you a few extra minutes to grab a cup of coffee.

Then there are the assumption-driven decisions that are downright dangerous. They can fly under the radar, untested and unnoticed, until suddenly you’re stuck in a trap. If you let assumptions creep into your design decision making, here are some sticky situations you may find yourself stuck in.

You’re stuck in design churn. You’re designing and redesigning the same feature. It’s taking longer than it should — costing your team time, money, and a little bit of sanity. You assume that you’re redesigning the correct experience this time, but something isn’t clicking.

You’re stuck in team discord. Your team can’t seem to agree on product objectives or why a feature has been redesigned in a certain way. Perhaps you assumed everyone was on the same page. Or perhaps stakeholders on your team ran with their own untested assumptions, causing confusion and discord.

You’re stuck with a product that doesn’t resonate with your users. Customers may visit your product and make it through onboarding, but you start to see attrition after a few months. Customers are canceling, or they’re not converting. Perhaps you assumed they wanted a feature that you’ve poured a ton of time into, but it’s the wrong audience. Or maybe you took a page from your competitor’s book with a specific design, assuming that because it worked for them, it would work for you. But it turns your customers off — literally.

Detect Harmful Assumptions by Finding Out What You Know and What You Don’t Know

We get it. Admitting what you don’t know is uncomfortable, especially as a leader. But once you’ve noticed the red flags of the assumption trap, you’ll realize that what you don’t know is taking your product into toxic territory. It’s time to course-correct.

Your first step is to break down any assumptions that may be causing the trouble in the first place. Next, you’ll want to separate what you know from what you don’t know.

What you know for sure is composed of information grounded in customer stories or other qualitative or quantitative data. When you act on these “known knowns,” you can generally be confident that you’re headed in the right direction. For example, maybe you’ve heard from CX that customers have trouble finding the “add to cart” button, so you updated the design to make it more prominent. Or perhaps your team has spotted users dropping off during onboarding, so you designed a new, simplified flow.

What you don’t know for sure are the assumptions that have driven decisions without the data to back them up. Perhaps you assume customers want a quick way to make a shopping list, so you pour time and resources into designing one. But you lack any evidence that this is really what your users desire. Or maybe you assume your navigation is optimized, but you haven’t actually tested it since your last update.

You need to pay special attention to the latter category, ‘what you don’t know for sure. Because if you’re spending time on an element that isn’t backed by data, you’re wasting valuable resources. Let too many “don’t know for sure” assumptions go unchecked, and your product starts to pay the price.

Testing Your Assumption to Find Out What to Fix

Assumptions can disrupt your design process, but stopping and fixing them is what counts. Plus, when you decide to stop designing based on assumptions, you instill more confidence in your team, more clarity in your vision, and more excitement in your users.

To test your assumptions and find out how you can make more informed decisions, start here:

  • Talk to your customer experience team. They’re on the front lines, after all. What patterns have they seen? Are there questions they answer frequently? What are their thoughts and ideas?
  • Next, review your data. Watch user sessions, and observe what customers are doing as they use your product. You’ll never know what to build or fix unless you dive right in. What roadblocks stop your users from converting? At what point are they engaging, and why? Gathering all your data can help you better understand your users’ habits and therefore design something that will be intuitive and valuable to them.
  • Finally, go all-in by talking with customers directly. Through a survey, usability testing, or interviews, get it straight from the source. You’ll never honestly know what your customers think, like or dislike unless you ask and observe them.

As your team works hard toward the goal of building a perfect product, be on the lookout for assumptions and set them aside. Drive your decision-making with data, and you can’t go wrong. But if you start to veer off course, you’ll know just what to do.