The design team critically examines the assumptions about the problem at hand.


When Mark Zuckerberg started his university network The Facebook in 2004, he may never have thought his fellow students would share all their personal information with him. He was wrong. He was lucky to find out his assumptions were wrong by just giving it a try and experimenting with a platform for students to connect and rate each others’ photos.

In many other cases, just experimenting is not so easy. Since experimenting can be very costly, it is better to try to challenge your assumptions in advance as an important starting point for innovation strategies. It also is a great ‘warm-up’ exercise for a design thinking workshop. Here are some examples of questions to be asked:

  • ‘Is it true that people just want to read news stories based on their preferences?’ 
  • ‘Is the lack of innovation in our company really because we don’t have time for it?’

Challenging assumptions is a critical thinking activity that also contributes to creative thinking by opening up more creative directions in problem solving. Assumptions are the hidden and often unconscious ideas, beliefs, and convictions about how things are or should be working. Assumptions are based on dominant practices and forces in society.

  • ‘Of course, we have to build an information profile of a person in order to understand what (s)he wants’. But are there no other options to get insight into  the user without violating privacy?
  • ‘Of course, you do not jot down notes on your phone but in a wallet size pocket diary’ is what people thought until 2010, when Samsung challenged these assumptions and developed the Smart Case, which led to the well-known Note series.

Five years later, in 2015, Samsung Mobile’s creative director Lee Min-Hyouk reported that, “Although everyone is for innovation, no one wants to change when we start talking about details … People told us, ‘It won’t sell.’ ‘You cannot hold it in your hand.’ ‘How can you put that thing next to your face?’ ‘The only reason to buy this is to make your face look small’” (Yoo & Kim, 2015).

Applying critical thinking teaches that all activities and all reasoning, even in design, are based on assumptions – ideas and convictions that you take for granted that constantly shape your point of view. If you want to get to new viewpoints and perspectives – and that is what innovation is aimed at because the older viewpoints may not be good enough anymore – these convictions can hinder the positive change you are looking for.

If you decide NOT to challenge your assumptions, that is the easiest way to go, since there is a natural tendency to stay within your comfort zone and stick with the conditions that you are familiar with. This is also related to the tendency to tame wicked problems, which can mean one or more of the following:

  1. You are not making the effort to expand the definition of the problem
  2. You are casting the problem as ‘just like’ a previous problem that has been solved
  3. You are declaring that there are just a few possible solutions
  4. You are simply following orders.

When you choose to challenge assumptions, you invite the richness and complexity of the problem, which can be both liberating and creative. Challenging assumptions is meant to be both a critical and an enjoyable activity because exploring new ground requires that you face the unknown. Optimism and joy, rather than fear, reflects the child in you who likes to challenge the ideas that you as an adult (have to) take for granted.


List some important assumptions that both you (personally and as a team) and the client (case provider) may have about the problem at hand. These include the important ideas and approaches that you and the client assume to be unavoidable for understanding and dealing with the problem.

Typical assumptions are:

  • People need (this particular) kind of product or service
  • We must build an app in order to tackle the problem
  • In our organisation we have no possibilities to…
  • For (our idea) to be successful, it must meet these conditions…

Then ask questions that challenge these assumptions, like:

  • How might this NOT be true?
  • Might we do something that seems to be out of the question in the current situation?
  • How might we be wrong in thinking that (this idea) is what people need?
  • Are there other options to approach the problem than by means of (our idea)?