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Silent Assumptions

Silent Assumptions: Circumstances that are unknowingly or unwittingly accepted without question

Published by Vincent Pickering

Critical thinking requires you to be critical in all things, not just what is convenient

Life is full of silent assumptions. Circumstances that are unknowingly or unwittingly accepted without question, in part due to human nature or ritual.

For example

  • Expense is not related to quality.
  • There is no pressure to follow trends.
  • Convention does not always dictate the pattern to replicate.

Train your mind to question everything it encounters. Seek answers to questions you do not have. Then act upon them. Previous knowledge informs future problems and tasks but it rarely provides the absolute answer in every circumstance or context. Investigate the problem specific to your project and draw from what you know as a resource but not the answer.

Identify user needs first. Understand how your business can fulfil those needs. Use rapid prototyping to test ideas with users, get feedback quickly adapting your approach to suit. Look for trends and patterns in your data or where comparable systems are falling short to deliver needs you have identified. Use the data you have collected to inform what you should build that is important to your users. Don’t assume because a competitor or similar product does something, that it applies to your use case. Act on data or business cases not whims or pre-conceived conventions.

Be cognisant; responses to questions from users may have an expiry date. Answers received are dependant upon context and current knowledge possessed by that user. As user proficiency increases and their familiarity with your system is mastered, previous answers may in fact cause frustration with exactly the same users who requested them.

Periodically query prior “facts”. Systems and their user-bases are fluid, it follows any data you collect is limited in relevance. A system and it’s users are a delicate ecosystem. Every change you introduce can impact it in ways that may not be readily apparent.

  • Do you have a high user turnover rate, requiring a low complexity, low friction sign up process?
  • Are they long time users, wanting advanced features, complex patterns?
  • Is it a mix?
  • Something else?
  • Do you know what the typical life-cycle of your users are?

Maintain healthy dialogues with existing users. Symbiotic in nature a system lives only because it’s users need and want to use it. Incentivise users to provide feedback periodically and demonstrate progress.


Humans learn through stories. Stories teach us morals, stories teach us lessons and stories show us how to grow. Gossip is the clearest example of how we are all story tellers. A small piece of information told to another can change dramatically from one person to the next. Details are forgotten, embellished, omitted or added. The story tellers own views are woven in to the story as it is told. Parts deemed important are emphasised, other areas downplayed or skimmed.

Bias woven in to stories can be unconscious and unknowing. Complicated further by the participant(s) in the conversation. Should those conversing be close friends, details or knowledge can be assumed, views may be echoed or agreed. If participants are less familiar stories may be softened in their language, details or nature to appeal to a wider audience, and in this act, important details may be lost or new information added.

Stories are not only relayed to other individuals humans explain and rationalise the world around them through stories. Creating tiny stories to fill in gaps between known events or spaces in time.

In Judaism, scholars speculate via stories and information around the texts in the Torah. They debate what could have happened outside the fringes of the written text. Sentences or passages are used for inspiration and entire stories are written and shared with other scholars. This is probably the earliest example of ‘fan fiction’ and is prolific enough it has a name ‘Midrash’.

Team members create their own Midrash. Stories relayed to each other in an echo chamber to fill in the gaps between known knowns and unknowns. Care must be taken when statements are made, or assumptions taken. Do the research where money and time permit to avoid falling in to the trap of explaining away gaps in user behaviour based on personal preference without data to back up the claim.

If you find yourself or a team member rationalising a problem in a system without the data to act upon, you are creating your own stories to the events or motives taking place. Instead; use stories as a basis to test hypothesis and discover truer data than you had envisaged.