The Bright Side of Being Wrong

There are three major things I’ve learned since I started doing product work four years ago:

  1. Understand the fundamental value you’re delivering to the user
  2. Focus on user problems rather than starting with ideas

And the third is something I’ve only just come to understand in the last few months:

3. Assume you’re wrong.

Of everything I’ve learned, this is probably the most counterintuitive, difficult, and even painful to implement. We have an innate aversion to being wrong to any degree — we experience pain with greater magnitude than we do positive experiences, and emotional pain and physical pain activate the same regions of the brain.

But being wrong, I’ve learned, is worth it, for two primary reasons:

  1. Being wrong is much less painful than failing, and if you’re wrong enough times and willing to correct it, you’re less likely to get to the point of failure.
  2. Being wrong can lead you to greater opportunities that you didn’t realize existed.

This second point is summed up nicely by product expert Marty Cagan:

The product manager’s job is to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible.

The operative word in that sentence is discover: the role of the product manager — or the product team, or the product stakeholder — is not to dream up the product. It is to discover the product, to peel back layers of problems and executions and find the fundamentally most meaningful thing to deliver to the user.

This is important because it is our instinct to anchor too early to specific solutions and to what our gut tells us is right. We love ideas and we love things we can sketch. But the problem is that we end up tying up our own emotions with those ideas — and if they don’t work out, and are rejected by coworkers, users, or the market, we are deflated, and the problem is thrown out with the solution.

Even when we seek out data to validate our idea early on, our brains are unhelpful. Daniel Kahneman’s work has shown that people tend to first jump to instinct and engage rationality second when making decisions, and studies show that it’s difficult to change people’s minds even when their opinions are indisputably incorrect. For example, when it comes to political opinions,

Directionally motivated reasoning — biases in information processing that occur when one wants to reach a specific conclusion — appears to be the default way in which people process (political) information

Our brains seek to validate our pre-existing perspectives, and in doing so, they mislead us.

The good news is that there’s a way to short-circuit this process through assumption definition and hypothesis testing. Assumption definition is an established part of the UX process, but perhaps we can push it further and also assume that our assumptions are flat-out wrong. I’ve recently learned through assumption definition exercises that your initial assumptions can be very, very wrong — but that’s a wonderful thing, because it leads you to discovering greater opportunities that weren’t initially apparent.

There’s another key benefit of boiling things down into their simplest pieces: preventing over-building into an unpredictable future. We are terrible at predicting the futureregardless of how much information we have about a situation. By building the fewest and most useful features, you can leave the door open to many possible futures and use cases for the product.

So instead of assuming that the users have the need your data is pointing you towards, that the new feature will double your revenue, or that your redesign is only a net positive for users, assume instead that you’re being misled by your data and your mind. Assume you don’t have all of the facts. Assume there’s a bigger opportunity than the one you see in front of you. Because there probably is — you just need to discover it.