Brain Fart #2: Are Assumptions Evil?

By Raunak Chaudhari (Lab Master, DoLAB) 

Umes Dai (Right Brain, Empowerment Academy) asks a participant during Teach Lab: “Why do you look so low?”, to which the participant said: “ASK, don’t ASSUME”. And that is what we have been reminding the participants throughout the workshop. At this point, we as organizers of the workshop have been focusing most of our attention on helping participants question their assumptions and more importantly, validate their assumptions. We felt that working on the basis of assumptions is wrong. So, naturally, we nudged participants constantly to base their decisions on facts and interviews, not assumptions. 
A month or so later, we’re standing in front of a very messy whiteboard with hastily stuck post-its clinging on to dear life – screaming for attention. One post-it is the center of all attention though and it reads ‘natural behaviors’. As far as I am concerned, the understanding of, working with, and articulation of natural behaviors is all design is really about. And this is something every designer worth the title is thinking about – whatever they might call it. In fact, every design thinking process is hinged on it. For example, let’s say you can’t turn on the screen on your phone. You would likely try to explore what the problem is (Understand/Empathize). You press a few buttons and realize it isn’t making any sounds or showing you any signs of life either. You then decide the phone may actually have a dead battery (Define). Maybe then, you start looking into how you could solve this problem (Ideate). One way would be to try and plug the phone into a charger (Prototype). Look back a few minutes later (Test) and when you realize, it still won’t turn on, you would go back and reconsider whether it is only the battery that has died and try another charger (Iterate). Sounds like something you could be do almost any day, doesn’t it?
So this brings me back to the response Umes Dai got. Why were we so terrified of assumptions? And despite our fears, why do almost all the participants in every workshop walk like zombies right into their own assumptions? Short answer – natural behaviors.
Here’s the long answer. It is only natural that we base our actions on our assumptions – it is just efficient for our caveman-brains. We have survived all this time on the basis of our “knowledge”. We think we know. We have the right to be stubborn and arrogant about ‘knowing’. That’s inevitable. We act on assumptions until we have no more assumptions left to test. Have you ever planned something? There. You assumed things would go a certain way and you “prepared” for it. 
So what does this mean for us as designers and for design thinking? Looking at our processes from the perspective of natural behaviors, everything still makes sense. Don Norman talks about “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world”. We’ve all have our own conceptual frameworks made up in our minds of things work. We believe them to be the best of our knowledge. Since people (and for us, our students) will inevitably work along these pre-existing biases, we should work it into the process as well. The idea here is to admit that assumptions exist.

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