Make (No) User Assumptions

by Megan Fath

People are surprising and unpredictable. The appeal of primary user research is more than sharing interesting antidotes at presentations (or cocktail parties) but to uncover how people really behave.

Surprising behavior can challenge our own assumptions about the ways that people act and think. As uncomfortable as new or contradictory information about users might make us and our clients, it demonstrates the value of conducting primary research (making the case for the value of user research would be a difficult sell if the research we conducted affirmed our client’s prior knowledge or assumptions).

As objective as we may try to be, most of us have some initial hypothesis for the discoveries we may come across in our research. However taking this natural inclination and turning it around will yield some interesting results.

The following are suggestions of acknowledging and exploiting user assumptions during the research process:

1. Make a list of user assumptions before beginning the research interviews. As your team collectively generates a list of user beliefs, be sure that the list focuses on characteristics and behaviors of the users (not their perceptions of brands or products).

2. Consider engaging your client in the same activity of listing assumptions. This will be a helpful tool to understand what your client’s current culture believes about the user. Sometimes these become user myths within an organization. This will assist your team early on in identifying the future challenges of communicating new learning.

3. Acknowledge user assumptions as personal biases during the research interviews or data collection. Now that you team has generated these lists of assumptions, put them aside as you engage with your users in research. Keep an open mind and challenge yourself to ignore those biases.

4. Reexamine your own and team’s assumptions as a part of the analysis phase. As your team begins to analyze the user data collected during research, revisit your original list of assumptions (and the client’s). Some groundbreaking insights are generated in posing the following questions to the team: “What did we think we would see that we didn’t?” and “What surprised us?”

5. Focus your final research story on the new information yielded by exploiting the original assumptions. Prioritize the disproved assumptions and surprises as your team builds the story to share the final research findings. A well-received and insightful report frames the findings in a thoughtful, provoking story. It also highlights the value of the research rather than re-presenting previously understood user behavior and beliefs.

In the end being proven wrong is a rewarding outcome of the research process.


We often don’t behave in predictable ways. Getting past assumptions about the user allows you to move beyond common solutions and get to the things that they really need and want.

Dig Deeper!
1. Check out this discussion on Wrong Assumptions and Poor Questions:


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