One of the strongest tools a designer has in their toolbelt is also one of the hardest things for people to bring themselves to say: “I don’t know”.
Why Can’t We Say “I Don’t Know”
One of my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics, which frequently looks at the intersection of human psychology and business though an economist’s perspective. This quote from a 2012 episode stopped me in my tracks:
What I’ve found in business is that almost no one will ever admit to not knowing the answer to a question. So even if they absolutely have no idea what the answer is, if it’s within their realm of expertise, faking is just an important part.
I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And I’ve found it’s really one of the most destructive factors in business.
There’s plenty of reasons that people don’t want to say they don’t know. It’s well known that humans are bad at assessing risk, including the risks of not knowing. Combining that with the Dunning-Kruger effect – the cognitive bias where people overestimate their own skills and abilities – can lead to a real compulsion to have an explanation for everything, even if you’re clueless.
On the opposite side of the coin, many people think it is part of their job to appear knowledgeable & they have to do everything possible to not damage this perception. This plays directly into the effects of Imposter Syndrome – when you feel you aren’t as competent or intelligent as others might think, even though people hold you in high regard.
Using “I Don’t Know” in a positive way does require an environment of trust to be successful. Your coworkers and customers need to feel that you not knowing or approaching assumptions with the mindset that things need more validation isn’t because you don’t care or aren’t paying attention or because you have trust issues or don’t believe in leadership. The more toxic work environments may even punish individuals for using the IDK approach to building products and features.
Wait, So IDK Is A GOOD Thing?
When used in the right context, “I Don’t Know” can actually be the Product Designer’s hidden superpower!
IDK is Disarming
I love “I don’t know” in the context of discovery. In a meeting with a subject matter expert, customer, or colleague, conducting research from a stance of “I Don’t Know, and I’d love for you to help me understand” immediately lets the other parties know that you’re truly looking for answers and aren’t trying to ‘test’ them. Often, this additional level of comfort leads to more open feedback. Open-ended “I don’t know, how do you feel about it” questions yield much better data than “yes/no” questions.
IDK Leads to Shared Understanding
IDK is equally effective with getting everyone on the same page. Starting from a mindset of “I Don’t Know” can force your team or leaders to say things out loud that may otherwise be in the dark, and combined with tools for documenting understanding (like the Lean UX canvas) can help generate great “north star” artifacts for the team to refer back to. A mindset of IDK can help illuminate big assumptions like:
- What core problem are we solving?
- Who is our user audience?
- What value is this going to be delivering?
- Why are we solving this now and not something else?
- What assumptions do we have?
- What does success look like and how are we measuring it?
IDK Keeps Us Honest
Designers are as bad as anyone, if not worse, in trusting their own ideas. Enthusiasm is an important part of communicating ideas to others, but it’s no proxy for understanding. In the absence of time or budget or resources, designers are susceptible to just go with their instincts. Designers are passionate and creative – it’s why we got into the field in the first place! As long as our processes are tempered with a healthy dose of “I think these ideas are great, but I don’t know if they resonate with our target user base. Let’s validate these assumptions!”, a dash of trusting your gut can be healthy.
Everyone makes assumptions about the world and we all have to start projects with some baseline of knowledge. It’s when we stop questioning our assumptions or the assumptions of others that learning stops happening. The danger of rolling with our assumptions and not digging deeper – not admitting “I don’t know” – is delivering a product or feature that provides little to no added value for those that need it. When that happens, it is obvious and painful for everyone. Anyone can fall victim to hubris and deadlines, but at the end of the day, every designer is responsible for raising their hand and questioning things in a way that encourages others on the team to also want to validate the path your product is on.
Just Do It!
As far as simple phrases go, “I don’t know” can be one of the most powerful tools you have as a designer. IDK isn’t a one-time or once-per-project thing, it has the most power if you are using it each step of the way in the design process. The worst thing that can happen is you find out you’re off-track… and that results in being able to take this new understanding, change course, and make things better!