Designing successful products: Tackling assumptions with research

Frances Brown

Rugby game with one of the players holding a ball and the other tackling that player from behind.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Assumptions are traps that you set for yourself and it’s vital that you dismantle those traps early, before they can do any damage. Our Chief Research Officer, Michael has further explored the effect that assumptions can have on your product and your company and how you can identify and challenge them.

Identifying assumptions involves understanding what you know about your users and your product or service and, more importantly, how you know it.

If you’re not sure how you know something, chances are that piece of information is an assumption and you need to challenge it and either back it up with reliable evidence or reject it.

Dangerous assumptions

Some things have to be assumed - it’s not possible to verify everything with research and evidence. Dangerous assumptions - ones that could affect fundamental aspects of your product or service, particularly ones that relate to who your users are and what problem you’re solving for them - must be tackled, however.

Say, for example, that a startup is developing a budgeting app for 20-30 year olds because they believe this age group struggles with money management and needs a clear and simple way to track their spending.

The first question the team needs to ask is: why do we believe this? Is this belief based on a real understanding of the target market? Is there any evidence to support it, or is it an assumption?

If it is an assumption and it turns out to be false, then the potential outcome for the company could be huge - they could develop a product targeted at a group that has no interest in or need for that product. Many, many startups fall foul of this problem and end up developing products that have no market and no future.

Using research and evidence 

Tackling an assumption involves breaking it down and examining each element of it, to verify or debunk it. Essentially, you want to find out: is there any way to prove this belief is true? The best way to find that out is through research. 

There is a wide range of research methods you can use to tackle any assumption - the key to choosing the right one is ensuring you get the right level of breadth and detail to answer the questions you have.

You might find that exploring an assumption in a particular way raises more questions than it answers and you have to go broader or deeper to get better insights. That’s not a bad thing - uncovering new gaps and assumptions is a positive outcome and the more exploration you do, the more likely you are to get at the knowledge and insight you need.

This is a brief guide to the research methods we use to support companies at different points in their journey, from the very early scoping of an innovative idea to growing an established business.

1. Understanding the problem, the market and the opportunity

At this point, there is likely to be a large number of unknowns about every aspect of the product and it will be vital to get a detailed overview of the products that already exist, the problem that the product is trying to solve and the potential market.

Potentially dangerous assumptions:

  • The problem you’re trying to solve actually exists
  • A substantial market for your solution exists
  • There is little or no real competition in the market, or that you can challenge the competition that exists
  • It is feasible to develop a profitable product

How to tackle these assumptions:

  • Desk research. Read relevant books, blogs, white papers, reports and journal articles. This is a low-cost, low-effort option, but the downside is that existing content might not quite answer your question. Nevertheless, it’s always a good place to start, as it allows you to explore what’s already been done and surface any questions that have yet to be answered. Our guide to desk research will help you get the most out of your sources.

  • Speak to experts. This approach requires more effort and time but has the advantage of allowing you to explore the specific area you are interested in with someone who is experienced and knowledgeable. Our speaking to experts blog will give you guidance on how to approach industry/subject matter experts and how to frame your questions.

2. Designing the product and the business model

Once you know that you are solving a real problem and there is a market, the next step is to develop the idea into a functioning product. This is a complex process, involving a lot of key design decisions that could have a major effect on your success.

Potentially dangerous assumptions:

  • You understand how the problem you’re solving affects your users
  • You understand your users’ lives, needs and opinions
  • You know the best way to solve the problem for users
  • Your business model will generate a profit

How to tackle these assumptions:

  • Speak to your users/your target audience. Focus groups and interviews are great for delving into the lives of your customers, to find out if you really understand the people you are trying to create a product for - do they have the opinions you think they have? Is the problem you are solving a genuine problem for them? Do they have any interest in or need for the product you are creating? Answering these questions is vital for the future success of your project.

  • Survey your users/target audience. This approach is great for verifying that what you know about a particular group of customers exists across a wider audience - in other words, that you are not developing a product for one very small group of specific people. It also allows adding solid numbers and data to your understanding of the audience, which is vital when you’re looking for either public or private funding.

3. Refining and iterating the product functionality

You’ve scoped your market and your idea is taking shape, now you need to know if your product does what your users need it to do in a way that they can understand. This is less about the product concept and more about the practicalities of the product itself.

Potentially dangerous assumptions:

  • Users understand how the product works 
  • Users find the product simple and easy to use
  • The product does everything users need it to do
  • You are not missing any opportunities to provide value/break into a new market

How to tackle these assumptions:

  • Test a prototype. In the early stages of product development, testing a simple prototype can surface major issues with the product concept and structure, long before any time and effort are wasted developing something that users can’t understand or don’t want.

  • Test a minimum viable product (MVP) or functioning product. Moderated usability testing of an MVP or finished product allows you to spot issues with structure, functionality and communication before those issues cause you to lose goodwill and customers.

Research is also vital at later stages of the journey, when a company is securing funding or accelerating growth - at any point in the process, the more knowledge and understanding that’s available, the more likely it is that good decisions will be made. 

Nightingale’s team has decades of experience in delivering all types of research at every stage of the design and development process. If you’d like to discuss how research can help you, or you have a project you’d like our support on get in touch.