Published March 20, 2024

Assumption Mapping Unlocks Design Project Success

10 min read

Have you ever found yourself knee-deep in a project, only to realize you’re crafting something that’s not quite hitting the mark? You’re not alone. The challenge is real – designing the perfect solution on the first try is usually not possible.. That’s where assumption mapping strides in – your strategic compass to guide you through the project wilderness.

Assumption maps reduce the risk of designing the wrong thing.

Through David Bland, we discovered how Robert McKinna FRSA uses assumption mapping in his inclusive design process.  He highlights the common issue in design projects where, despite thorough research and user testing, solutions often contain flaws due to baseless assumptions made by the design team. 

Mapping is a solution for identifying and evaluating assumptions early in the design process, particularly during the research phase. Mapping assumptions according to their importance and the evidence supporting them aids in developing well-founded concepts and ideas for end-users.

Key Elements of Assumption Mapping

This technique uncovers and challenges the underlying assumptions that may lack evidence backing, potentially leading to flawed solutions. It involves noting assumptions about desirability, feasibility, and viability—key areas in design thinking.

The process focuses on these areas:

Desirability: Understanding what users desire or need.

Feasibility: Assessing the practicality of implementing the design.

Viability: Evaluating the economic sustainability of the design.

Now, imagine this:

Sticky notes on a board represent a guess or a ‘hunch’ about your project. They’re not just random thoughts but potential make-or-break factors for your success. This visual feast is what assumption mapping looks like in action. A matrix where the importance of your assumptions tangles with the evidence you have to support them.

We map assumptions based on their importance and the proof behind them. This process helps to focus on ideas well-supported by evidence, ensuring designs truly fit what users need and can do. Helio is a great way to evaluate your ideas across these areas.

Assumption Mapping are based on their importance.

Four Quarters Explained

On this matrix, you’ve got four quarters: Plan, Experiment, Defer, and Discover. Sounds like the stages of an adventure, right? Well, it is. You’re the explorer, and each quadrant is a territory to conquer, with its unique challenges and treasures.

  • In the Plan zone, you’re dealing with the big stuff—important assumptions backed by evidence. Your project’s pillars are these assumptions, so you want to keep them solid.
  • The Experiment area is where you become a scientist. Here lie the critical assumptions that you’re not quite sure about yet. It’s time to put on your lab coat and get to testing.
  • Then there’s the Defer quarter. It’s tempting to dive into everything head-first, but this zone reminds us to hold our horses. If it’s not crucial and you have some evidence, park it for later.
  • Lastly, the Discover section – the great unknown. These assumptions are not vital at the moment and lack solid evidence. Keep an eye on them; they might rise to prominence as your project evolves.

By now, you may think, “That’s all well and good, but how do I reduce the risk of designing the wrong thing?” Stay with me. Assumption mapping isn’t just prevention; it’s a strategic tool for aligning teams, clarifying goals, and saving time.

Assumptions Mapping is an interactive technique designed to identify these assumptions as a team to help focus your experimentation. The goal of Assumptions Mapping is to get teams to talk to one another about the overall risk and then go do something about it.

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David Bland

Founder at Precoil

Assumption Mapping is a Foundation

This is a critical step in the design process, particularly during the initial research phase. Assumptions drive strategic design for user needs.

This method systematically identifies and scrutinizes the underlying assumptions that, if not evidence-based, may lead to ineffective solutions. It focuses on three essential aspects of design thinking. Desirability is about understanding user needs. Feasibility, which involves the practicality of the design implementation. Lastly, Viability concerns the economic sustainability of the design.

Prioritize assumptions based on significance and evidence. This directs attention to ideas with strong evidence. It ensures designs meet user needs. This approach aids in successful design development and fosters fact-based decision-making.

The next blog segment will cover assumption mapping and explore its impact on project success. Understanding and applying assumption mapping is crucial for all designers. It shapes how you approach design assumptions and influences product development, ensuring resonance with users.

The Toolkit for Traversing the Terrain of Assumptions

Getting started with assumption mapping requires focusing sharply on several key elements. First and foremost, you need to understand what constitutes an assumption in the context of your project. An assumption is a belief about the current or future state of things you take for granted as true without sufficient evidence.

Now, let’s break down the ingredients you’ll be working with:

  • Assumption Analysis: This is your starting point. Analyze each assumption by asking critical questions. What evidence supports this assumption? What’s the source of this evidence? Is it reliable? This rigorous scrutiny helps prevent the costly mistake of building on shaky foundations.
  • Mapping Assumptions: Once you’ve identified your assumptions, plot them on the assumption mapping template. This visual tool helps you categorize assumptions based on their importance and the evidence you have to support them. It’s a clear way to prioritize what needs attention now versus later.

Additional things to consider

  • Business and Project Assumptions: These are the ‘big picture’ assumptions that impact the broader scope of your project. They can include market trends, customer behavior, and technological feasibility. They deserve a special focus because they can significantly alter the direction of your project.
  • Assumption Validation and Testing: After mapping out your assumptions, the next step is to validate them. This involves testing through experiments, research, and user feedback. It’s like checking the weather before a hike—you want to prepare for the actual conditions, not just what you hope they will be.

Helio gives you access to your target audience while still in the discovery phase. It allows you to send rapid surveys to your ideal consumers and learn what their experiences and needs are like now:

Target audiences while you’re still in the discovery phase.

Early user insights guide your assumptions and help you quantify the value of each idea as you present them to your audience.

  • Stakeholder and Cognitive Mapping: Understanding the perspectives of different stakeholders and how they think can unveil hidden assumptions. This facet of mapping is akin to having a team of scouts—each provides unique insights that help you navigate better.
  • Strategic Planning and Assumption-Based Planning: Assumption mapping isn’t just a one-off activity; it’s part of strategic planning. Ensuring your strategy is built on verifiable truths minimizes the risks associated with unknowns.
  • Risk and Uncertainty Mapping: Part of assumption mapping’s value lies in its ability to highlight risks and uncertainties. By doing so, you can better equip yourself to mitigate potential problems before they arise.
  • Assumption Identification and Documentation: Keep a meticulous record of all assumptions identified during the process.
    This documentation is a reference point for current and future projects, ensuring you don’t lose valuable insights over time.
  • Scenario Planning: Finally, use your mapped assumptions to play out different scenarios. What if a key assumption is wrong? How would that impact your project? Scenario planning helps you prepare for various outcomes, increasing your project’s resilience.

By incorporating these elements into your assumption mapping process, you’re setting up a framework that supports informed decision-making. It empowers you to build designs that look good on paper and work effectively in the real world where it matters most.

We continue our journey through assumption mapping by delving into practical examples, sharing expert tips, and revealing how you can apply this powerful technique to your projects. Whether you’re refining an existing product or starting from scratch, assumption mapping is a skill that will serve you well throughout your design career, ensuring that your work is always informed, relevant, and poised for success.

Navigating the Landscape of Assumptions

As we dive deeper into assumption mapping, let’s pivot our focus towards the practical side of things—the templates and tools that turn theory into action. An assumption mapping template is a navigational chart through the often murky waters of project planning and design thinking.

The value of an assumption mapping template cannot be overstated. It acts as a structured guide, helping teams to categorize, analyze, and prioritize assumptions systematically. From the initial stages of assumption identification to the critical steps of assumption validation and testing, these templates keep the process on track and ensure no stone is left unturned. Here are some considerations:

  • Using a template can streamline assumption analysis and enhance the clarity of your project assumptions. 
  • Stakeholder and cognitive mapping contribute to a more nuanced understanding of business assumptions. 
  • Carefully documented and tested strategic planning assumptions can mitigate risks and reduce uncertainties.

Integrate assumption-based planning into your strategy. You’re preparing for the future. You’re shaping a scenario where your project thrives amidst challenges. Stay tuned. We will unpack the tools that make assumption mapping precise and foresightful. You’ll gain insights to build products that excel in the real world.

Assumption Mapping Templates

Utilizing the right templates and tools is crucial for assumption mapping. It ensures that every hypothesis is scrutinized and every risk assessed. It’s not just about avoiding unverified assumptions; it’s about building a solid, evidence-backed foundation for your project.

User journey mapping complements assumption mapping. Driven by audience insights, it reveals which assumptions are valid. For example, a journey mapping template on Helio helps understand customer experiences. This fits into your ideal product roadmap.

Let’s delve into the specifics of these templates and tools and discover how they can be the cornerstone of your project’s success. Whether you’re honing your skills as a seasoned designer or embracing these strategies for the first time, understanding and applying these elements of assumption mapping will significantly refine your approach and help you design products that resonate with users and stand the test of time.​​

Bringing Assumption Mapping to Life: A Helio Case Study

In product design and development, assumption mapping is not just a theoretical concept but a practical tool that brings a significant impact. Let’s explore how this approach can transform the design process through a real-world application with Helio.

Imagine a scenario where a design team at an e-commerce clothing brand is tasked with creating a new mobile app to make shopping for formalwear online an inviting experience. The team is buzzing with ideas, from weather outfit suggestions to push-to-store opportunities for in-person engagement. However, before diving headlong into development, they decided to employ assumption mapping and opportunity testing to ensure they were on the right track.

Lets Dive In

1. The process begins with the team listing all their hunches about their target audience —i deas about how consumers will react to specific concepts and features. For each hunch, the team lays out the problem it is solving, why they think it’s an opportunity, and how it will affect the business.

Determine your opportunity, and how it will affect the business.

2. Each hunch will then be evaluated across three standards: (1) how important it is to the business, (2) how feasible it is to build from a technical perspective, and (3) how important it is to their target audience. The Getup team started by adding business and technical values to each opportunity and then used Helio to establish the user value of each opportunity.

To test an opportunity in a product’s early discovery phase, the team gathers gut reactions from participants in their audience of Male Online Formalwear Shoppers (US).

This includes describing their concepts and feature ideas in as clear detail as possible and then asking for quantitative reactions from their audience:

Ask for quantitative reactions from your audience.

The value of that feature is compared to the relative value of other ideas, and then assigned a user score between 1 and 5. For instance, this professional stylist idea saw 22% of participants show 10/10 interest, while other features like the weather outfit recommendations only had 12% at the same level of interest. Therefore, this professional stylist concept was ranked a 4/5 in terms of user interest, while the other feature received a 2/5.

3. Armed with these insights, the Getup team now has the feedback they need to prioritize their list of features. With a business, tech, and user score attributed to each opportunity, the spreadsheet framework is re-ordered to reveal the highest totals out of 15 at the top, and the lowest towards the bottom.

Prioritize your list of features.

With this prioritized list, the design team pivots their approach. They focus on features that cater to these newly uncovered user needs, such as instant personalized help and personal stylist reps. This evidence-based direction enhances the app’s appeal to its target audience and aligns with broader societal trends toward sustainability.

4. The result? Upon launch, the app receives enthusiastic feedback from users who feel their needs and values are genuinely reflected in the product.

An evidence-based direction enhances the app's appeal.

The design team’s careful consideration of assumptions, guided by the principles of assumption mapping, led to a product that stands out in a crowded market.

This case study illustrates the transformative power of assumption mapping in steering design teams away from unfounded assumptions and towards evidence-based decision-making. By rigorously evaluating and testing their hypotheses, teams can design products that truly resonate with their intended users, ensuring their efforts lead to successful outcomes.

Embracing Evidence-Based Design: The Power of Assumption Mapping

Navigating the design process can sometimes feel like trying to find your way through a dense fog. The challenge? Ensuring that your design not only sees the light of day but also resonates with its intended audience. Assumption mapping is a transformative approach that encourages teams to base their decisions on solid evidence rather than gut feelings.

The technique meticulously evaluates assumptions on three critical fronts of design thinking: desirability (what users want or need), feasibility (the practicality of bringing the design to life), and viability (the economic sustainability of the design). It’s about aligning designs with genuine user needs and capabilities, ensuring they’re fanciful ideas and viable solutions that can thrive in the real world.

Helio is a platform for evaluating your designs across these pivotal areas. Assumption mapping serves as a beacon, guiding teams to ponder project assumptions carefully and make decisions anchored in factual evidence. This not only sharpens the understanding of user desires but also paves the way for inclusive, effective, and universally appreciated designs.

Assumption mapping equips design teams with the clarity and direction needed to navigate the murky waters of design. It ensures that their creations are not just seen but also meaningful and impactful. It’s an indispensable tool for an evidence-based approach to design.

Assumption Mapping FAQ

What is assumption mapping?
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Assumption mapping is a strategic tool used during the design process to identify and evaluate the assumptions made by a design team. This method helps to uncover and challenge the underlying assumptions that may not be backed by evidence, potentially leading to flawed solutions. It focuses on categorizing assumptions based on their importance and the evidence supporting them, aiding in the development of well-founded concepts and ideas that meet end-users’ actual needs.

Why is assumption mapping important in design projects?
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Assumption mapping is crucial because it reduces the risk of designing the wrong thing by systematically identifying and scrutinizing assumptions that, if not evidence-based, may lead to ineffective solutions. It ensures that design decisions are grounded in factual evidence, focusing on desirability, feasibility, and viability. This approach not only improves the likelihood of project success but also saves time and resources by preventing potential issues early in the process.

How does assumption mapping work?
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Assumption mapping involves plotting assumptions on a matrix according to their importance and the evidence supporting them. This matrix is divided into four quadrants—Plan, Experiment, Defer, and Discover—each representing different categories of assumptions. The process involves rigorous scrutiny of each assumption, prioritizing them, and deciding on actions such as planning, experimenting, deferring, or discovering more about them to validate and test their accuracy.

What are the key elements of assumption mapping?
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The key elements of assumption mapping include identifying assumptions about desirability (what users need), feasibility (the practicality of the design), and viability (the economic sustainability). Assumptions are analyzed and mapped based on their importance and evidence, guiding the team to focus on well-supported ideas. This method promotes informed decision-making and the development of designs that are more likely to meet user needs and be successfully implemented.

How can assumption mapping benefit design teams?
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Assumption mapping benefits design teams by providing a clear framework for evaluating assumptions, prioritizing tasks, and focusing efforts on areas that require validation or further research. It aligns the team’s understanding of project risks and encourages collaboration in addressing them. This method enhances project clarity, goal alignment, and efficient resource use, leading to designs that are both innovative and grounded in reality.

What are the steps involved in assumption mapping?
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The steps in assumption mapping include assumption analysis (identifying and scrutinizing assumptions for evidence), mapping assumptions on a template, focusing on business and project assumptions, validating and testing assumptions, incorporating stakeholder and cognitive mapping, engaging in strategic and assumption-based planning, mapping risks and uncertainties, documenting assumptions, and conducting scenario planning. This comprehensive approach ensures a thorough evaluation of project assumptions and preparedness for various outcomes.

How can teams implement assumption mapping in their projects?
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Teams can implement assumption mapping by starting with a clear definition of assumptions related to their project, using templates to organize and analyze these assumptions systematically, and engaging in a collaborative process to evaluate their importance and evidence. This involves conducting experiments, gathering user feedback, and using strategic planning to address and validate critical assumptions. Regular documentation and revisiting assumptions throughout the project lifecycle are also essential for adapting to new insights and ensuring project success.

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