☠️ The perils of assumptions
Part of a weekly newsletter with advice for building digital products.
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Here’s what’s been on my mind this week:
A product strategy or feature that is built on bad assumptions can sink you
Remember what grandma used to say about assumptions?
”Assuming makes an ASS out of U and ME.” Get it? She was right, that’s still true!
Assumptions can really put you in a bind. They are basically little bits of knowledge that you think are right. Somehow, they’ve made it into that pretty little head of yours and have gotten stuck there. Maybe it’s a piece of information that your old boss told you. Maybe it’s something you read in an article five years ago that doesn’t apply anymore. Maybe it’s an insight from a user that used your product and relayed their personal experience to you.
These are all assumptions that can really put things that you are building on shaky ground. And here’s the truth about this that’s the most worrisome to me personally…
You have these assumptions, whether you are aware of them or not
They are lodged up there in your brain, ready to ruin things you’re working on. They can range anywhere from well-intentioned assumptions about how users like to use a mobile product to assumptions about what market conditions in your industry will look like for the next five years.
Here’s some more worrisome news…
Your team members and leaders have assumptions too
Just when you thought that this only involves self-regulation. Sorry homie, I wish it was that easy. Everyone you work with…your peers, your management, people that report to you are making assumptions all the time.
“This feels like everyone around us is out to get us, Ajay. What the heck do we do?!” Okay, first, calm down. No one here is out to get you. There is a straightforward way of dealing with this so your outcomes reflect good quality decision-making and not an amalgamation of bad assumptions.
Start looking for assumptions in our own conclusions
Start with yourself. Start looking for assumptions that you’re making in your own dialog about how you’re going to make a decision about that new product feature or the new strategy change.
If you’re going to build a save feature in an e-commerce funnel, are you assuming that all customers will want this feature? Are you assuming that, if you built it, they would come? (I had sad news for you: that’s unlikely.)
If you’re thinking about changing your strategy to target a younger demographic of mobile social app users, are you assuming that this demographic will be more engaged with your product? Or generate more revenue for you?
Once you open your eyes to the assumptions you yourself are harboring, you won’t be able to unsee them. That’s great! You’ll be doing noble work, pulling yourself out of the ditch before even starting the car.
Identify assumptions in the conclusions of your fellow team members
A note: I recommend pursuing excellence here, but some advice…try to do this while also not being a jerk. It will have more impact through coaching and gentle advisement than being a monster and telling everyone that they are wrong. Onward:
Once you’ve started mastering yourself as it relates to assumptions, it makes sense to start probing this concept on your team. I like the idea of starting by noting to yourself what assumptions the team is holding onto. This approach starts training your mind to root them out by default.
You could then take these assumptions and proceed with the next step: proving or disproving them.
Prove or disprove assumptions with data and evidence
Once you’ve collected assumptions from your own mind or your team members, it’s good to make a regular practice of proving or disproving assumptions with data or evidence from customers.
I think there are a few main avenues for performing this exercise:
Analyzing customer usage data to see if the assumption is valid or not
Setup a usability test with an experience or behavior that you’d like to understand with customers and see if their preferences and behavior prove or disprove the assumption
Run an A/B test with key success metrics that help provide background information to address if an assumption is valid or not
The above is in order of difficulty and resource intensity. Pulling data to prove or disprove an assumption is easier and less resource-intensive than running an A/B test, especially if you have a low amount of traffic.
Remember, this is a process!
Rome wasn’t built in a day, remember? Same idea here, it’s going to take some time for you to build this muscle. In general, I think all PMs and leaders are on a journey here. The best thing you can do is get started and keep pushing yourself to get better at it.
Until next time! 👋
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