Thistles look great, grow fast, don’t need much effort to take care of, they stay even after winter comes and sometimes we find them one year later slowly rotting in the fields or our gardens. Just like with assumptions. They pop-up like hiccups and they get dangerously engraved into our minds and are sometimes hard to remove.
Therefore, the purest form of Design Thinking applies an ancient Zen principle of the Beginner’s mind in order to chop off all those thistles right at the beginning of the process so that the cherry-trees of Design Thinking can be truly fruitful.
Assumption? What do you mean?
A thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof. — Oxford Dictionary
Well, so… we are accepting something to be true without a proof. That doesn’t sound very scientific or logical. It sounds a little bit like an oxymoron. How can we accept something as true without a proof unless it’s an axiom?
Let’s take an example. So I believe that if I come home earlier, my partner will be happier. Or if I come to office earlier my manager will be happier. But is this true? Maybe.
I guess somebody in the back of the meeting room raised their hand and suggested to test the assumptions to get our proof we need…
So that people developed a method, where they test assumptions like a scientist would try to prove their hypothesis by a quantitative analysis of a sample and statistically prove that it’s (almost) true.
This is great and it works, unless we want to be really creative and come up with something radically new or we want to find out what the real root-causes of problems grounded in human needs are, rather than just scratch the surface of symptoms.
Let’s take an example. If our assumptions about a local cafeteria and its business problem of low sales of coffee are:
- people don’t like coffee in our cafeteria
- cleaning service in the cafeteria is poor
- price tag of the coffee is too high
- people prefer tea rather than coffee
- our cafeteria is too far from their seating
What one would do is to test these assumptions and realise that assumption three as depicted below is valid because when we asked our guests in a questionnaire, 70% of them considered the price as high.
Great! Hurray! We found the problem, so let’s jump into the solution mode, time is money so let’s solve this quickly. What if we reduce the price and we are done and can focus on something else…
Well… unless we want to find out what the real problem is here and it’s not the price itself I can guarantee.
Now the UX people may start screaming: “It’s the experience!”.
What if we forget about the assumptions in the first place?
Just imagine, emptiness, ‘tabula rasa’, the moment when you’re standing in front of a classroom full of parents and kids and the teacher says, sing! Oh my God! The moment of infinite horror!
Right, so, let’s give it a try… Don’t worry, have no fear, any assumptions you’ve got you can get back later.
All self‑centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. — S. Suzuki; Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind
So is compassion the answer?
Right, so we know the business problem. Low sales in the cafeteria. That’s what the balance sheet is showing us so it needs to be true. But it feels rather dry and cold, kind of mechanical.
Where is the emotion?
Perhaps what is missing here can be explained easily by this part of Pierre Berton’s 1971 interview with Bruce Lee:
Bruce Lee: So what I’m saying, actually, you see, it’s a combination of both. I mean here is natural instinct and here is control. You are to combine the two in harmony. Not…if you have one to the extreme, you’ll be very unscientific. If you have another to the extreme, you become, all of a sudden, a mechanical man…no longer a human being. So it is a successful combination of both, so therefore, it’s not pure naturalness, or unnaturalness. The ideal is unnatural naturalness, or natural unnaturalness.
Pierre: Yin/yang, eh?
Open questions, Stories, Feelings, Emotions, Reasons… and finding patterns in the sample…
So, well, what if instead of a validation of an assumption we simply ask the people what their problem is, right?
But how do we know that they will be telling the truth?
The secret is the emotion…
Tell me a story when you felt good or bad about something…
Right on, here we go, heading to our first customer in the cafeteria and asking him to tell us a story and well prepared to understand the reasons behind — why he didn’t feel good about it:
Q: “Please tell me a story when it was the last time you didn’t feel good about the cafeteria you’re in”.
A:”Once I was buying a coffee and the bartender told me that she doesn’t have time and I need to wait.”
Q:”Why did it make you feel bad?”
A:”Well because she was acting rude and I was in a hurry. I was also with my girlfriend so that she also humiliated me in front of her?”
Q:”Why did you feel humiliated?”
A:”Because I always want to defend my girlfriend because I love her and this lady made me look like that I was not able to do so.”
So one might already assume that perhaps the quality of the customer service isn’t very good… Let’s just hold on for a moment until we speak to more customers and perhaps to the bar tenders as well!
So let’s suppose we talked to eight customers and somehow all of them didn’t feel good about the bartender because she didn’t treat them well, didn’t smile and kind of wasn’t motivated very much.
We also talked to the staff and they didn’t feel very great because there were cameras all over the place so they were not feeling trusted.
Human point of view and basic human needs
So what do we have here, customers unhappy with the staff and staff unhappy with the environment of not being trusted.
Business problem: Low sales of coffee
Business need: Return on investment
Customer problem (1): not treated well by staff
Customer need: be treated respectfully
Staff problem (2): unhappy in their working environment
Staff need: be trusted
So as it seems this throws quite a different outcome. Instead of having five assumptions based on our experiences, judgement and memory to quantitatively validate, we now have a cherry-tree of infinite possibilities which generates cherries that can be trusted.
Why these cherries can be trusted?
Because, as we intrinsically sense, feelings cannot lie.
Now we can start ideating on how might we make our customers and staff feel better rather than how might we lower the cost of a coffee.