Hypotheses in Any Context

How hypotheses combine humility, customer-centricity, and storytelling to realistically frame your work

Undoubtedly, by now you’ve heard the advice to frame your work as a hypothesis. In all likelihood, though, your organization doesn’t work with hypotheses reliably. The vocabulary may be there, but the action may not reflect it. In this newsletter, I’m going to cover:

  • What a hypothesis template looks like

  • Why you should frame your work as a hypothesis

  • What complete hypotheses look like in three contexts

Let’s dive in.

The hypothesis template

If you Google hypothesis templates, you’ll find thousands of options. Given that you’re reading my newsletter, I’m going to share with you the template Josh Seiden and I wrote and shared in our book Lean UX. The syntax is designed to help you write a complete sentence, however the least important part of this is the syntax. As long as you include the following four elements, you’ve got a good hypothesis:

We believe
we will achieve [this outcome]
when [these people]
attain [this benefit or goal]
with [this feature/product/service/initiative/etc]

The template starts off with the phrase “we believe” rather than “we know” to indicate a realistic level of confidence in your idea.

The first variable to complete is the outcome—or the behavior change you’d like to see if your hypothesis is valid. Second, we get to the target audience: Whose behavior do we want to change? Third is the benefit or goal these folks are trying to attain. In other words, why would they seek out a new solution, product or service? Finally, we get to the solution itself.

When completing the template, it’s imperative to connect these 4 elements together. You have an idea for a solution or service. You should have a good guess about who that solution is for (your target audience) and why they would (or should) care about it (their goal). If you’re right, how will their behavior change from what they’re doing today? (And, for extra credit, by how much?)

Essentially, when complete, the hypothesis you write with this template should tell a story. It’s a short story to be sure, but it should be a compelling one. Most importantly, you have to believe it. If you don’t, you won’t convince anyone else that this is a good idea to pursue.

Why frame your work as a hypothesis?

Hypotheses are an honest perspective on the work you’d like to implement. Oftentimes we see work framed as a requirement. The reality though is that there are many assumptions built into every “requirement” that are rarely acknowledged. A hypothesis is an attempt to explicitly visualize the assumptions, and therefore the risks, inherent in every idea we have about what to build or implement.

There are always 1000 justifications for why we should implement a new solution or service…

“The competition has it.”
“It’s an ‘industry standard.’”
“Our customers are begging for it.”
“No one else has it.”
I saw it on an app my kid uses, and it was so great.”

The list goes on.

None of these are based on a concrete user need or anchored in success criteria that reflects actually meeting that user need. Without a hypothesis, the measure of success for a new idea is deploying that new idea. With a hypothesis statement, we put a customer-centered perspective on our work, tying our success to a meaningful, positive impact to those customers’ behavior.

A hypothesis reflects the real-world doubt inherent in all of our new ideas. It’s a humble approach to building new capabilities that ensures we create the bandwidth, the objectivity and the psychological safety to correct our course if we discover that any of our assumptions are wrong. As soon as we learn our work isn’t shifting behavior in the way we’ve defined in the hypothesis, we have the justification to change course. It’s evidence collected from the field. It’s objective and focuses on making our customers successful.

What does a hypothesis look like?

Let’s take a look at 3 different examples of complete hypothesis statements.

Here’s a B2C e-commerce hypothesis:

We believe we will achieve a 35% increase in average order value if our weekly customers can find complementary products more easily with our pre-checkout suggestion pop-up.

This example puts forward the idea of suggesting related products to our regular customers in the hopes of increasing how much they spend each visit. The biggest risk here is that this will actually backfire and reduce the average order value or, even worse, the number of visits for these valuable customers. A hypothesis ties the validity of this idea to a specific behavior change (increase in AOV). If we don’t see that, we can change course.

Here’s a B2B industrial manufacturing hypothesis:

We believe we will add 15% more customers in the next year if general contractors have more flexibility in their planning and budgets with our pipe-bending-as-a-service offering.

In this instance we have a company that makes pipe-bending machines (true story!). The machines are expensive, and they’re not selling well. The customers—general contractors in this instance—need flexibility and agility in their planning and work. The proposed solution here is to rent out the machines as a service for on-demand pipe-bending instead of trying to sell them. We believe this will drive contractors to sign up for rentals and become loyal customers. We’re de-risking both the service itself as well as the motivation for these folks to use such a service.

Source: Sigmund on Unsplash

Here’s an internal hypothesis for an HR team:

We believe we will increase the number of employees referring friends to open positions by 45% if mid-career staff feel like they’re learning effectively on the job with a robust catalog of self-paced and live training options.

Finally, we have an internally facing hypothesis about implementing a new learning platform for current employees. This is a big expense for an organization and part of the motivation is to develop staff, but equally as important is driving quality candidates to open positions, which often come from internal referrals. If current staff feel like the company is “taking care of them” with a robust training catalog, perhaps they’ll be more likely to refer their friends. Perhaps not. It’s risky. A hypothesis reflects this risk and opens up an important conversation about how we might reduce that risk.

Hypotheses drive learning

By exposing the risks associated with each new idea using a hypothesis statement, we are explicitly creating a dialog around how we are going to discover how real and serious these risk might be. Teams need to test and eventually validate their hypotheses if the work is to continue. Conversely, teams need to stop working on ideas that are not going to deliver the behavior change we desire. Hypotheses make this explicit. They are a simple and powerful tool to help make your work with OKRs, agile, Lean UX and design thinking much more effective.

What I've been up to

It’s August, so I’m on vacation. Aside from writing this newsletter and my weekly blog post, I am spending time away from my desk and mostly away from the heat. I’ve been with family in lovely Scotland for a bit now and will be here for a while longer before returning home. I’ll be back in September with a series of new offerings and some new clients I’m very excited to get started with.

Then, on October 3, Jeff Patton and I will be leading our second-ever live, 2-hour workshop on how to combine OKRs and user story mapping for your teams’ work. We did our first one in the spring, and over 200 people signed up. Sign up for this one here.

If you’re looking for some on-demand training in Lean UX, product management and OKRs for your teams instead, you can learn more here.

Finally, Josh Seiden and I continue to work on our OKR book. Want to stay in the loop? Sign up for the waiting list here: www.OKR-book.com.

Watch, Listen, Read

Watch: The Bear on Hulu – I know I’m late. I thought it was a reality show, and I couldn’t stomach another one of those. It’s not! Holy crap is it not. For me this is like if Goodfellas was a TV show about a conflicted chef. Instant binge watch on this series. And there are two seasons! (I’m only through Season 1, so no spoilers please).

Listen: Ben Folds, What Matters Most – The new album from one of my all time favorites is, in theory, his last rock album. We shall see. Fun, funny and authentic. There’s not much Ben Folds can do that I don’t love. Highlight for me on this record is “Christine from the 7th Grade”, which is about an old friend of his who loses her mind on internet conspiracies.

Read: Chip War by Chris Miller – Still working my way through this one. It’s interesting and terrifying, as most geopolitical books are. The world runs on semiconductors. The production of these tiny brains is heavily concentrated in parts of the world under constant threats of war and natural disaster. What could go wrong?

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