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The Power Of “I Don’t Know” In Design
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Arrogance is a dangerous beast in product design. That’s not a generalization or an accusation of the field. It’s not common but I’ve seen it and it can throw things way off course.

What does that mean in regards to UX? It means pretending to know when you don’t. Or being unwilling to question your own assumptions.

Assumptions are a necessary part of the field as long as it’s understood they’re just that: assumptions. Assumptions can be tested and validated or invalidated. That’s how you find basic truths and insights into your design problems.

Maybe everyone knows that. I certainly didn’t when I first started.

The first product I worked on was a mobile app for a bank with hundreds of locations. I had used the mobile app for my own bank. I’d used some investing and saving apps. I’d read a few articles on finance tech. So, naturally, all my ideas would be sung with praise from the rooftops.

I launched into the project with tons of ideas for features I thought would be awesome. Ways to surface them, ways to onboard, first touch points and reinventions of existing features.

Enthusiasm is an important part of UX. The designers I’ve worked well with are idealists, they see the world as something that can be fixed, improved and reimagined. I’ve found this quality to be a welcome addition to the product design effort but it has to be kept in check and continually backed up.
This is a story about making mistakes
I moved forward with my ideas, developed my features into journeys and those journeys into wireframes and the makings of a cohesive experience began to form.

I assumed our stakeholders were looking for a completely new mobile experience and our users wanted an new set of banking features. I designed, built wireframes, flows, interactions, visuals and animations.

Something didn’t feel right. Our conversations felt out of sync and I began to feel less confident in the direction I’d taken. But I was already invested. I’d gone so far down that path that I would have to admit defeat, turn back and start over.

What did I do wrong? Were the personas ill formed? The journeys off target? Features unwanted?

If you start from false or misunderstood assumptions, every step you take from that point forward will be off target.
I never stopped to say “I don’t know, let’s find out.”
This simple statement opens the door to so many learning opportunities. In a work setting, it can be difficult for designers to say, it was for me. Sometimes others won’t ask you. It’s easier to make assumptions about the world and move forward than to question and dig deeper sometimes.

I’d argue that being able to say you don’t know something openly and honestly is an important quality I look for in great designers. On the flip side, questioning other’s assumptions in a way that invokes curiosity is equally as important.

Assumptions close the door on learning. If you already know something, why question it? Why explore it any further?

Had I stopped to evaluate my own assumptions and what I was hearing from stakeholders and my team, I would’ve learned that we didn’t need a new mobile experience, we needed a new desktop experience—a completely different journey, persona and set of features.

You say, “Well that’s just dumb, how could you be that off the mark?” I’ll tell you, it was easy. Just start from incorrect assumptions and don’t dig.

I would’ve come to understand that users were looking for basic features like being able to set travel notifications, manage their rewards programs and make payments from their checking accounts.
The question is: can we learn from these experiences and evolve?
I did. It was hard. And humbling. I began questioning everything. I got resistance both internally and externally. Sometimes this can feel like it’s delaying things but in the end, you’re saving incredible amounts of time. The point wasn’t to cause rifts and delay progress, it was to call a spade a spade—we made assumptions that weren’t validated and that led us down the wrong path.

The point isn’t to do this process once, it’s to do it at every stage and iteration of your design project.

Hunch ➡️ Assumption ➡️ Solution ➡️ Validation ➡️ Decision

Here’s an example:

I had a hunch that banking users had difficulty with monthly subscriptions. I formed the assumption that they didn’t have a simple tool to keep track of their monthly subscriptions, causing unnecessary spend and surprise bank account balances. I came up with a solution to evaluate users’ past account transactions and surface these as a separate feature in the account dashboard. I ran a UX test posing the hypothetical to users, put two different screens in front of two different sets of users and gauged emotional and click success, validating my assumption. This allowed the team to land on a decision and flow for the feature.
Summary
  1. Form your assumptions, your solutions and validate them.
  2. Do this each step of the way.
  3. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” It makes learning possible.
  4. Be willing to question others, including your stakeholders but do it in such a way that encourages curiosity.
  5. Anytime you’re hit with uncertainty about your decisions, it’s a good thing, lean into it and dig deeper.
  6. If you go down the wrong path, take what you’ve learned, go back and do it right. You’ll be happier in the end.
"Enthusiasm is an important part of UX. The designers I’ve worked well with are idealists, they see the world as something that can be fixed, improved and reimagined."
This article is written by Corey Waldin on UX Collective: The Power Of “i Don’t Know” In Product Design.
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