Why people make assumptions

Assumptions help us navigate the world. They’re shortcuts that allow us to anticipate what to do next, or guess how someone might be feeling or thinking. Sometimes assumptions are based on our own past experiences, or stereotypes we’ve learnt. They can come in handy, but be a real pain when trying to create for someone else, especially if we want to understand and address their needs.

Take design for example, and in particular interface design. Often, we make assumptions about what people want from websites or mobile apps. We guess the demographics of who might use our product and forget groups routinely ignored. We make assumptions about age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, location, and whether or not people have a disability. We do this because it requires less effort, keeps costs down, and is the result of our own lived experience. 

In other words, it’s easier. But, all these factors play a pivotal part in shaping how interfaces appear, potentially sound, and how successfully they’ll meet the needs of those we’re designing for.

The kinds of assumptions we make

When we base our designs on assumption, we increase the likelihood of creating an inaccessible digital product – for all. Maybe a large group of people will be unable to use our product. Perhaps we forget to contrast the colours enough in our designs to cater for colour blindness, or didn’t take into consideration some people use devices with a screen reader. People interact with digital interfaces in a variety of ways based on their unique needs.

We forget English isn’t everyone’s first language, offer only one option, and use only text labels for buttons but not icons. Clever use of iconography can bridge the language barrier where words can’t. We can opt for complex language or numbers and forget people have varying rates of literacy and numeracy. 

Or, we could be designing a website with a ‘typical’ demographic in mind. That is, a young, home-owning, middle class family who live in an affluent urban suburb. But, what about a family with three young children and two dads in a civil union that live in the country? What opportunities are we missing there? When we neglect to design with peoples' different lifestyles in mind, we're missing the mark. But that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.

How to overcome assumptions

The good news is, we can overcome our assumptions. I try and overcome my own using the following methods.

Talk to people 

It seems like a no-brainer, right? Have an actual conversation with the people you’re going to design for or just to get an outsider's opinion – one that's not your own. Start with people immediately around you then venture further afield – you'll often need to – to gather from a broader pool of people.

Online surveys 

An easy way to reach a much broader audience. Fill your surveys with open questions, and some quantified closed ones. Read UX Planet's excellent article on how to create effective surveys so you can better engage with users. 

After pushing your survey far and wide, you may have uncovered some interesting insights that reveal certain trends. For example, let’s say you send out a survey to people based in rural communities. You may find they’re underserved and there’s room for a tool or service that would improve their lives – which you could design.

With this insight you can build into your product a way to properly cater for rural delivery. Or, build great offline saving into your design if internet or mobile service is patchy. These are things you may never have explored if you’d assumed you were only designing for urban groups.

Approach subject matter experts

Approach experts and you'll strike first-hand information gold. For example, after noticing a rise in homelessness in your area you may want to create a solution that provides greater comfort in the colder months. Unless you have been in a similar position, it’s hard to know what they need most. 

Talking to people at your local city mission will give you a better idea of their real needs – some of which may surprise you. When you speak with people at the centre of a problem, you've begun research with primary sources. Make a recording (with consent) of what’s shared and listen back later. Review what you’ve said and listen for any questions laced with assumption. This will help you become more self-aware for future projects. UX Planet has some great tips on pre-research questions.

Studies and research papers

Now you want to collect quantitative and qualitative information on the design problem, or from the people in and around that problem. Where we get this information from can be a tricky path to navigate. I suggest returning to the subject matter experts you’ve already spoken with and asking them what resources they’d suggest. Local councils or organisations such as Stats NZ can also prove useful. Academic papers can provide valuable insights, as can free resources, like Google Scholar. However, it’s always good to investigate who the studies are conducted by and if they're biased.

It’s always about the facts

We now know why we make assumptions, understand how they affect our designs, and what we can do to stop them holding us back. You can carry out the step-by-step approach I've laid out in an order, and in a way that suits you and the people you want to talk with. From here we create a hypothesis and put it through numerous iterations and repeated tests. But, that’s a topic for another blog. 

When we assume to know something, we miss an opportunity to make tools and products accessible and relevant to everyone. Unless we’ve done some research, what we’re doing is basing these decisions on fiction – not fact. When we’re armed with the facts, we do a better job of designing for all.


If you're ready to challenge your own assumptions, get in touch for a friendly chat.