Overturn Assumptions by Design

Bill DeRouchey, design studio lead at GE and former creative director at banking startup Simple, talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about why and how designers challenge assumptions.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: In my experience, when a basic assumption of a system or a project is overturned, most people say, “Oh no!” And designers have a reaction that is more like, “I win!” Does that seem right?

Bill DeRouchey: In the broadest general terms, people… I’m not sure that it’s that they want to be right, but they want to be assured that everything will be okay. It’s a safety thing, a security thing. You need to believe that the way you are viewing the world basically matches reality. People associate those assumptions with their intellect. So once people learn they’re wrong about something fundamental, it usually goes straight to their identity. That can make people go into panic mode. But of course it depends on the scale of the assumption.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So what makes designers react in this other way where they say, “Great, now we’ve overturned the assumption, now our work can finally begin”?

Bill DeRouchey: It’s because the other way of seeing things has been beaten out of them.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Wow, really?

Bill DeRouchey: Yeah, they’ve had to learn over time that assumptions are just assumptions, that it’s not personal.

I’m not sure that the basic reaction to overturning an assumption is “now we’re ready to begin” though.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But there is a particular sort of excitement that designers feel when it happens, isn’t there?

Bill DeRouchey: Hmm. I think it’s more like this.

Let’s say you are working with a client on a problem. The dynamics of that problem are likely to be much more clear from outside the system than inside it. I think that designers’ excitement comes not from seeing where the client’s assumptions are wrong, but from the moment when they get that a-ha moment and can see things the way you do. It’s a very particular sense of giving, of helping someone see something that they needed to see.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Okay, I think we need to populate these two categories to further understand them. You’ve talked about these radical experiences of empathy with clients. You’ve also talked about experiences that have happened to designers that beat assumptions out of them. Can you tell me about each of those?

Bill DeRouchey: My favorite example of the first thing comes from work I did with a printer company. They used the symbol of a checkmark in all of their interfaces to mean “okay.” They loved this checkmark. They thought it was an important part of their brand. It was “their thing.” But all of us on the agency side were thinking, “Wait a minute, isn’t this kind of confusing? Do users actually think this?” So we asked them in a series of interviews, and it turned out that 9 out of 10 users didn’t know what the checkmark was. We strung all of those responses together into a two-minute snippet video, back to back to back. That pretty much killed their belief in the checkmark right there.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s interesting, because that sounds somewhat less pleasant than the sharing of the “a-ha” moment that you described earlier. It sounds as if you may sometimes have to break the bone to heal it.

Bill DeRouchey: Yeah. You’re always trying to solve a client’s pain in some way. They came to you because they have a problem. We tend to assume that there is something underneath that problem that they can’t see on their own. So if you have to cause some temporary pain to help them see the real cause of their pain, that’s a good thing.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you tell more more about that instinct for the “problem beneath the problem”?

Bill DeRouchey: I think designers like that, want that. Otherwise they’re just executing orders. I think they intentionally put themselves in situations where there are those tough problems to solve. In manufacturing or industrial design, you’re taught to keep asking “why” until you get to the root cause of the problem. So yeah, I’d say it’s a core belief of designers that there’s a “problem beneath the problem.”

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Do you think that has more to do with designers or design? Is it that the type of people drawn to the field are just inquisitive, or is there something in the nature of the enterprise that makes you go deeper?

Bill DeRouchey: I think it’s more design than designers. Because there is a whole other aspect to designers where they like to make things. They all want to make a piece of furniture or a print or a painting. They all have their solo projects. But more often in design, you’re doing a project with somebody else or on behalf of somebody else. That implies a design process, and you wouldn’t have a design process if there weren’t some problem for it to solve. So yeah, I think this comes more from the verb than the noun of design.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You had also mentioned this idea that designers have experiences that beat assumptions out of them. What are some of those?

Bill DeRouchey: The first thing that comes to mind is talking to real customers, real users, real people. Part of our job is to get out on the street, find the real customers, and then show the client what they think. People think they know their customers, but a lot of times they don’t. It may be that they used to know their customers, but something about them or their environment changed.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I have a friend who thinks a lot about the hotel industry. He was saying that while the people who use hotels haven’t changed that much, what has changed is that most of them now have smart phones. It’s a change in the users’ environment that makes a lot of the traditional features of the hotel — the concierge, the little book of local restaurants — seem quaint.

Bill DeRouchey: That’s a great example, because think of the gap between a smart phone app and the idea of hospitality. Hospitality implies people. Introducing something that takes those people out of the equation goes to the core of the business. They may have to think in broader terms of customer service. That may be hard, but they’d have to do it.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So it seems that designers have this response of excitement when an assumption like that is overturned. It seems like another important difference is what they do after it happens.  Because I think a lot of other people would just give up. So what does a designer do in response?

Bill DeRouchey: They look for opportunities. If your assumptions about the world are wrong, it’s likely that your business competitors have made many of the same assumptions. These kinds of assumptions tend to be specific to industries rather than individual businesses (though that’s possible). But if you go back to the hotel example, if you’re Marriott and you realize that you’re the first ones to figure out that basic assumptions of hospitality are outdated, that could be a huge advantage. You’ve realized in advance that the world is a little different from how everyone thought. And if you enter a design process, you may find 20 ways of responding to that difference in the world that your competitor doesn’t have. That’s exciting!

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Even if you take away the business opportunity piece, it must be exciting on a personal level — it’s almost as if you were the first person to step on a new continent. The idea that there is some new place that is connected to the rest of the world but where no one has ever been… yeah, I get excited just talking about that.

Bill DeRouchey: Exactly. There’s a huge sense of exploration. But to go back to your original question, you have to let people know that it’s safe to explore this new, massive, unknown space. That’s the tricky part. Everyone will have a different response. It’s often important for us to consider who the client is and how they might react.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It seems as if there’s also a kind of natural relationship to the design process. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say that you find out ahead of everyone else in the world that exercise actually makes no difference in weight loss.

Bill DeRouchey: Okay. I like it!

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Me too. Okay, so you can imagine people reacting in various ways. Some people will be disappointed, some people will be thrilled. But regardless, some interesting things are going to start happening to the economy as all of the money that was put into weight loss by exercise is freed up to do other things. The system itself will enter this sort of unstable period of experimentation.

Bill DeRouchey: Right.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: How do you prepare clients for that kind of shift on an institutional level?

Bill DeRouchey: Part of it is by presenting to them a range of potential futures that are opened up by the overturned assumption. They need to be able to think through the process of what the overturned assumption means by modeling different scenarios that could result. If you’ve just told somebody that everything they know is wrong, they have no next step to take. There is no path forward. But you can craft those paths for them and help them think about the benefits or detriments of each one. That way they won’t feel stuck. They can start thinking from a point of optimism.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think it’s probably helpful to give people that sense of agency, even if it’s kind of a fiction. Because people make stupid decisions when they’re desperate.

Bill DeRouchey: Right, you have no time to reflect. All you do is react.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So you’ve described walking a client through this process of responding to an overturned assumption. Do you think you do something similar internally?

Bill DeRouchey: Oh man. Are you sure this isn’t a conversation we should have with a bourbon? That’s hard. Recognizing assumptions on your own is hard. I’m actually going to use the example of the relationship I have with my wife. I think we’ve gotten to the point where we can laugh at ourselves for being wrong. That’s a huge thing to get to in a relationship.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Well let’s use that to talk about this sort of social relationship with a client. Every designer I know has had a moment where they have discovered something profound but also say, “Oh no, the client is going to hate this.” How do you process that conflict within your own mind before you start talking to them about it?

Bill DeRouchey: Part of it is just admitting that you have a problem, or that they have a problem, that it may come across as bad news. It may come down to relationship management. You may have to have a “meeting before the meeting” with some folks. You don’t want to have all the client’s employees in a room with a PowerPoint on the screen that says they’re all wrong. It’s like you’re back in school and you answered a question wrong in front of the whole class.

So there is a real problem of socializing what you’ve learned, softening it up in the right way. Broken assumptions are dangerous things. They may lead to broken people too. They may not fully get it in one session or one discussion.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you’re absolutely right to recognize that these assumptions have more than intellectual value to people, that they are a part of their lives. But I want to go back a little further. There is a point in your work before you started playing that chess game with them where you had to say, “Woah, it’s essential that we tell them this. It’s our duty to tell them this.” It seems like there’s a special kind of integrity there.

Bill DeRouchey: Yes.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So what gives you the determination to tell them? I mean, you’re not a physician, you’re not legally obligated to do it.

Bill DeRouchey: It depends on the scale of the assumption. Let’s assume it’s a big one, a significant one. You’re right. I have to. I have to.

Usually at this point, you’ve been working with these clients for a certain period of time. You’ve developed a personal relationship with them. You might even consider them friends. In fact — this may be important — developing that relationship may be part of the design process. Because if they’re just assholes, if they’ll just never get it, then I could actually see avoiding it, just walking away. You can’t fix everything. But if you’re at a point where you can be honest and human with each other, I think you will also feel more beholden to tell them this.

It’s the equivalent of telling your best friend that his girlfriend is bad for him. That may not be easy, but you’ve developed a relationship where you feel like you have to help that person be happy and succeed.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Well, to go back to my physician metaphor, it seems as if you’re almost talking about a sort of bedside manner for designers. Some people think bedside manner is just about being a nice person. But experienced physicians understand that they may need to develop these relationships for their treatment to succeed. You had better be on good terms with a person if you’re going to have to administer some sort of painful treatment fifteen minutes later.

Bill DeRouchey: There’s also the fact that at some point, the “problem” is actually the client themselves and the decisions that they’ve made. The solution may be for them to fire themselves. That’s one of the hardest situations to face as a designer. It’s much easier when the assumption is some sort of change to the external business environment. Then it wasn’t their fault.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I feel like there’s almost this kind of Joseph Campbell kind of work you have to do with people. You have to set them up as the hero of the quest. And it could be a quest of personal transformation as well as slaying the dragon threatening the town. The point is that you re-frame whatever is coming as exciting and purposeful.

Bill DeRouchey: Right.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What advice would you give to someone who wants to approach overturning assumptions in the way that a designer does?

Bill DeRouchey: To get all pithy about it, my favorite bumper sticker is the phrase, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Get over the fact that each of as, as individuals, don’t know everything. That’s okay. Collectively, as a team, we know more than any one person can know. Each of us will know more in the future than we do now. Design is a process to help you learn some of those things.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s say that someone has adopted that general attitude. They say, “Great, I’m ready for my assumptions to be overturned. Now where are they?” What advice would you give people to find them?

Bill DeRouchey: Let’s assume this is in a business or organizational context. Try to find clues or things that are amiss. Think of them as data points. Look for the pattern among them.

Also, take a look at the ways in which you measure or evaluate yourself. You are probably building toward the metrics that you give yourself. But those metrics may be wrong — massive assumptions are often built into them.

I think it’s also useful to project scenarios into the future, to ask how things might look 10 years out if a trend continues. It’s not so much about predicting what’s going to happen as giving yourself the space to analyze your present situation.

But it’s also kind of funny to ask, “Where are my assumptions?” because assumptions are usually overturned in the pursuit of solving some problem or achieving some goal. You usually assume you’re solving the right problem.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Huh, right — it’s situational. How about this… I think it’s good to have the attitude that any person you meet on any day could be the most important person you meet that year. It makes you a nicer person and open to more possibilities. So in regards to assumptions, maybe you need to assume that any problem could turn into a different problem, one with the potential to overturn some basic assumptions.

Bill DeRouchey: And the smoke usually leads to some kind of fire. It’s not as if problems just neatly reveal themselves. You always have to dig into the cause at least a little bit, so it makes sense to investigate whether that cause affects other things too.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you’re right that this sort of discovery is inherent to any kind of problem-solving. Imagine that you met a guy sitting next to you on the airplane. You ask him what he’s really good at, and he says, “Oh, I’m really good at winning fights with my wife.” Well, in that situation, I would expect that guy has a deeper problem. But I think we’ve all met people in business who say they’re really good at “putting out fires.” You have to wonder what that person would do if you eliminate the cause of the fires.

The point is that there’s always a process of letting go of our precious little problems in order to find the real problems. It necessitates some creativity about who you are.

Bill DeRouchey: Yeah. That’s actually a process you go through in design school. You let go of this notion of being correct. It’s one of the reasons why designers always like to create 50 potential solutions to a problem. They don’t want to feel married to any one of them. You want to disassociate your skill or your intellect from the end solution that emerges.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Wow, so it actually plays a kind of sociological or ritualistic function to come up with all those solution. It’s a way of reminding yourselves that there are many paths.

Bill DeRouchey: Right. There’s never just one solution.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Wow. I feel like you could drop the principle of using ideation in that way into the life of any business or profession.

Bill DeRouchey: Right. You can see it in the notion of sketching. You need to get lots of ideas out quickly. That comes from industrial design. You’re quickly figuring out what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. You're narrowing the set of solutions rather than coming up with one brilliant solution.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And it also helps do what we were talking about earlier, giving people that sense of agency as they explore the new land.

Bill DeRouchey: Or showing those multiple possibilities of the future, yeah. It reminds you that there is always a variety of ways to go.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And giving people a choice actually helps them power through to get there.

Bill DeRouchey: Yeah. Even in the process of narrowing down those possibilities, you learn more about the problem and the people who are going to solve it together.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.