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Curiosity statements > hypothesis statements

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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This episode of the Freakonomics podcast got me to finally pick up Influence by Robert Cialdini, a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for about a decade.
It spells out all of the different ways to influence someone’s behavior, and is known as somewhat of a Bible among marketers.
I’m currently on the third chapter, Commitment and Consistency, which talks about the power of someone writing something down. He gives the example of Chinese Communist prison guards during the Korean War brainwashing American soldiers by having them write letters about the negative sides of the US and the benefits of communism. They would then have to read those letters aloud to other prisoners and would have to incorporate those statements into letters to family back home in order to be confident they’d actually be mailed.
It sounds mild, yet it was incredibly effective at getting soldiers to divulge information and become collaborators.
Even writing phrases like “Communism may not work in the West but it does in the East” would gradually lead to shifts in their perception, because the act of writing would lead them to internalize that thought.
It worked because we humans like to believe we are consistent and stick by our beliefs. Once they wrote those statements and had to share them with others, to change them would admit to being inconsistent, which is often regarded as a weakness.

What this has to do with customer research
As I read this, I found my mind wandering to another concept entirely, one that is more pertinent to the content of this newsletter (I appreciate you hanging with me through that introduction): being willing to be proven wrong by your customers.
We’ve talked in the past about how much of a slog it can be to introduce direct customer interactions into companies that previously made decisions without consulting customers or including them in their decision-making progress.
So many of you have shared your own customer research war stories with me about the difficulties of trying to introduce customer-driven decision making.
One reason I think this can be so difficult is that companies—those groups of people—have hypotheses about who their customers are and what they want. They’ve probably had many hours of meetings about that, written down those beliefs, found data that supported them, and widely disseminated them within the company.
To then do rounds of interviews with customers and hear that their conception of their buyers is wrong or even incomplete would then be painfully embarrassing. Even the threat of possible embarrassment is enough to make people push off the thought.
It makes sense why they would resist.
They’ve written down their beliefs about customers and their reputation depends on those beliefs being true.
This doesn't just apply to insular leadership.
A lot of UX guides suggest that teams start by writing down hypotheses about customer preferences and behavior.
I’ve done this sort of activity myself many times, and suggested that others do it at the beginning of their own processes, too.
“We believe that invoicing customers with custom processes through procurement portals is the most time-consuming task for accounts payable coordinators.”
This seems innocuous. It seems scientific. It seems reasonable. There are some cases where hypothesis statements can be useful, like when you’re doing an A/B test on a landing page. You have a hypothesis that changing only the headline will lead to a lift.
But after reading Cialdini, I’m rethinking hypothesis statements for exploratory research.
If you follow Cialdini’s research, writing down hypotheses in an exploratory context like customer research might be detrimental.
It might bias the team towards validating their hypothesis rather than evaluating it.
It might make the team look ill-informed to their leadership or investors.
It forces them to potentially face being inconsistent in their beliefs.
In cultures with psychological safety and customer research at their core, hypothesis statements for exploratory research might be fine.
But even in those organizations, I think there might be an alternative.
"We believe..." => "we're curious..."
What if instead of writing a hypothesis statement, you instead wrote a curiosity statement?
A curiosity statement would not present the same threat of inconsistency that a hypothesis statement. The team wouldn’t have to defend their initial views that may have been disproven.
A curiosity statement might be something like: “We are curious about why [observation] happens.” It could be expanded with a statement about the business impact (“Understanding this observation could help us [action] for [product/customer segment].”)
The actions afterwards would be the same. You would still explore in the same way.
Even if you’re in a one-person company with no leadership to defend yourself to, you can use this kind of thinking.
A curiosity statement removes the judgment and potential shame of a hypothesis statement.
Shifting towards curiosity thinking
Shifting towards being curious about something gives you permission to explore many different paths. It invites looking in all of the nooks and crannies to find out what’s going on.
“I believe people are abandoning their carts after adding more than three items because [reason you made up after looking at data].”
becomes a curiosity statement:
“I’m curious about why people are abandoning their carts after adding more than three items to their carts.”
Curiosity mindset as growth mindset
There’s another term this reminds me of: growth mindset.
If there were a thought leadership Bingo card, Growth Mindset would probably be the center free space.
It’s a great concept, yet I quibble with the term because it isn’t instructive. The term itself doesn’t immediately tell people what they should do in order to get the benefits of having a growth mindset.
Instead, a reframe would be to think of a growth mindset as a curiosity mindset.
A curiosity mindset encourages seeking new information and delighting in your initial ideas being incomplete, rather than being threatened by new information that challenges your perspectives.
And that is the hallmark of growth mindset.
Like the drive to be perceived as consistent, all humans have natural curiosity. Chances are, it was suppressed in you long ago, and there might only be a little bit left…
But you’re human, so you’ve got that curiosity in you.
So go out. Let yourself be curious. Ask questions. Find the answers. Without the fear of being wrong. Because when you’re just curious about something, you can’t be wrong. You’re just learning.
(PS: Book update)
Things are moving along on the book front. I finalized the copy earlier this week after going through edits from a professional proofreader and getting sign off to include examples of customer research practices at Stripe.
Cover design is in the works, and after that I’ll be requesting a proof copy of the physical book. We’re probably still a few weeks out from the physical book (I hope?).
I also decided to pre-release the audiobook as a private podcast, and announced to people who’ve pre-ordered that the private podcast will be included. Launch date for the podcast is TBD. The pre-order is $29 and includes the PDF/eBook, Notion + Google Drive templates for all of the scripts and phrases, and now the private podcast. That bundle will be $59 after launch. You can grab it while it’s still available here.
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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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