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The link between hypotheses and telling stories

Back in 2015 I first wrote about hypothesis driven design. I explained that everything can be seen as hypothesis driven design – “The real question is whether or not we write down the assumptions behind the design decisions we make and measure outcomes.” It’s also about how you tell the story of the work you’re doing, what you’re prioritising, and why.

This is a useful format, shared by Monica Otulakowski on Twitter that I think would work well for capturing hypotheses:

In the past it was like this __
Then something happened __
So now we should do this __
So the future might be like this __

As per the context of Monica’s original tweet, this is intended as a way to capture and structure everything from presentations to meetings. It’s based on understanding what has already happened, what’s happening now, what you plan to do next, and then what you expect to happen as a result.

Thom Kearney, replied to this, saying that it reminded him of this Pixar story formula:

Once upon a time there was a __
Every day, __
One day, __
Because of that,__
Until finally __

This format could be really useful as well.

We can lose sight of the stories in our work. So maybe a good hypothesis statement that works as part of a design process could look something more like this:

This has already happened __
Everyday, this is now happening __
So we are going to do this __
And we expect to be here as a result __

Potentially, and looking back to my original blog post, this would need more detail around how we measure each set of outcomes, and whether each hypothesis statement is true or false.

Reflecting 5 years on, I’d now say that not every hypothesis statement has to result in true or false. Sometimes it’s okay that the stories in our work are more about increasing certainty in a direction we’re taking, or a new service model that we’re designing.

The story of where we’ve come from, things we’ve learned, and the reasons behind what we do next are all important. It isn’t always possible or necessary to design perfect experiments when what really matters is making progress. Stories always contain some ambiguity, but they also help us to make sense of the situations and places we’re working in.

Context and shared understanding matters when we plan and prioritise work together. Whatever format you use when capturing hypotheses to test, make sure that they help you to tell and share a bigger story.

Ben Holliday is an experienced designer, leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.