The Importance of Challenging Your Assumptions

Cindy Alvarez, Director of UX for Yammer

Cindy Alvarez is the Director of User Experience for Yammer (a Microsoft company) where she tackles the weird, ambiguous problems where people don’t even know where to start. She helps teams figure out where to start and gets people who are doing similar things to talk to each other and figure out what they’re doing. Cindy wrote Lean Customer Development: Build Products Your Customers Will Buy. She is also a frequent speaker on UX, Lean, and tech culture.

In every product team there are dozens of assumptions masquerading as knowledge. In this interview, Cindy talks about why challenging these assumptions is not only a good idea, but is necessary to the work you do as a product person, whether you work in a start up, or a large organization.

Challenge your assumptions so you don’t miss out on opportunities.

You’re smart, you know your business, you know your industry. You always seem to have that answer that “smells” right, but is it really the answer? If you don’t challenge your assumptions, or challenge those answers that smell right, you might miss out on opportunities.

Take pricing for example. If your customers tell you that your product is too expensive, they could be telling you one of two things. Either your customers don’t have enough money to pay for your product, or they don’t see enough value in your product to spend a substantial part of their money on it.

If you don’t challenge your assumption on what “too expensive” means, you might just lower your price when you should increase the value of your product – make it worth it.

What types of assumptions should you constantly challenge?

Most assumptions deal with what you think your customers want. You may base those assumptions on past purchases or customer behavior, but past behavior may not be an indication of future performance.

Cindy asks each person on a team she’s working with to take a sticky and write down the core value of their product. She often finds that people who’ve worked together for months will write stickies that are never exactly alike.

Once she got past the amazement that a team could not be aligned on the core values of their product, she realized they had different assumptions about what their customers were looking for. People on those teams never tried to invalidate those assumptions by asking customers “what do you want most?”

How can you challenge assumptions?

If it’s your own assumption ask yourself, “why do I believe this?” Think about how you can make sure that you’re right or not. Play devil’s advocate with yourself.

When you need to challenge someone else’s assumption, you have to be more diplomatic. If you’re not careful, challenging assumptions can seem like challenging that other person’s authority.

Instead of asking questions like “why are we doing that?” or “I don’t understand why we’re doing this” ask specific questions such as “okay, so you’re saying that we need to build this. When we build that, what is the problem we’re trying to solve?”

Don’t say, “I’m not going to build this yet.” Start with, “I want to make sure I’m really clear on the product, the problem.” Ask questions to understand the problem you’re trying to solve better. You don’t want to make it seem as though you don’t want to do what someone is asking you to do, you want to convey that you want to do a good job at what they’ve asked you to do.

How do you get started challenging assumptions?

First, remind yourself to actually challenge assumptions. Sometimes a physical reminder to double check yourself can be helpful.

Second, find a devil’s advocate. When you work on a team you’ll often have someone who enjoys playing that role. If you have that person, run your new ideas by them. Explain the idea then ask where it could be better. You want to hear why your idea won’t work their team so that you can meet people at that point of where they are.

If you don’t have a devil’s advocate, you can explicitly identify someone to be your devil’s advocate.

Your devil’s advocate doesn’t necessarily need to be on your team or in your organization. If you have a friend who is really hard to impress, they can often make a great devil’s advocate.

What should you watch out for when challenging assumptions?

Don’t dismiss someone’s viewpoint because they’re playing devil’s advocate. Listen to what they suggest and consider it along with all of your arguments.

Make sure you’re not arguing for the sake of arguing and are having productive discussions. You want to find a way to challenge assumptions that is more structured than just arguing around the table. One way to do that is to start the discussion with the question “what would we do for this assumption to not be true?”

Don’t just look for confirming information. Explicitly ask for negative feedback. Ask questions like “if tomorrow you came into the office and you had this feature instead of the one you’re using today, what potential problems would you run into?” Give people permission to provide you with issues that they foresee with your idea.

Remember that what people say they do and what they actually do are completely different things. Try to figure out what people actually do.

How can you challenge assumptions when you’re short on time?

The fastest thing you can do is have everyone on your team ask a specific person, one contrary question. Think about what one question you could ask that might reveal that you’re wrong, and who you should ask. If each person on your team asks one person and asks their network to ask someone the same question, you can quickly get several responses.

In this exercise you will get some responses that really contradict what you assumed. When that happens, discuss whether you should proceed or spend a little more time to get more information. When you have that discussion, balance the cost of spending more time versus the cost of getting the decision wrong.

Are there good assumptions versus bad assumptions?

There are assumptions that have big consequences and others that have small consequences. Bad assumptions are those that have big consequences if you’re wrong. Good assumptions are those that you can be wrong but recover from being wrong quickly without much cost.

If you know an assumption is bad, those are the ones you want to challenge as soon as possible.

What is an example of challenging assumptions?

People have asked for additional formatting for Yammer posts. A reasonable assumption that you could derive from that is that additional formatting would drive a lot of usage.

In order to test that assumption Cindy and her team discussed what would actually tell them that additional formatting would drive additional usage. They decided to look at the length of the messages that people posted. Their thought was the longer the message, the more formatting would help. They looked at the data and found that most messages were not much longer than tweets. Formatting was probably not that important. Determining that allowed the team to focus on other items.

What one thing should people remember?

Identify a problem that your customers need to solve. Collect evidence that it is a problem. Determine what bad things could happen if you don’t solve that problem.

Having this clear information allows you to have productive discussions when someone challenges your assumptions.

Kent McDonald

Kent J McDonald writes about and practices software product management. He has IT and product development experience in a variety of industries including financial services, health insurance, nonprofit, and automotive. Kent currently practices his craft for a leading agriscience company and provides just in time resources for product owners and business analysts at and Product Collective. When not writing or product managing, Kent is his family’s #ubersherpa, listens to jazz and podcasts (but not necessarily podcasts about jazz), and collects national parks.