Assumptions Are Dangerous Things

Sometimes – heh, usually – your product oracles are vague.  There’s little or no user manual, requirements specification, online help, tool tips, etc. In these situations I generally become “Annoying Question Man,” constantly badgering the programmers, project managers, sales team, or anyone else, asking: “How’s this thing supposed to work?” I’ve learned from hard experience that assumptions about expectations can and will come back to bite you and quite often, unfortunately, it’s difficult to know that you’re even making them.

It seems I am doomed to learn this particular lesson over and over again.

Last week I took a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. My sole purpose for going there was to see their synchronous fireflies. Sadly, I was late to the show by about 2 weeks. They were nowhere to be found. I was crushed!

My experience with fireflies comes from living in Northern Virginia for several years, where the fireflies all appear between roughly June 20th and July 5th. Since (you’ll notice) this page – as well as several others I looked at while I was researching for the trip back in December – does not give dates, I assumed that meant they’d be on the same schedule. All fireflies are the same, right? That must be why no one mentions specific dates, right? Uh, apparently not. I’m often wrong about things, but most of the time it doesn’t sting this bad! “I should have known!” has been my mantra the last few days.

In an effort to learn what I may have done differently to prevent this mistake I went looking everywhere (meaning in nearby Gatlinburg and the Park’s visitor’s center) for information on the fireflies. I could find nothing. This was weird. I can’t be the only one who thinks these things sound super cool to see! I started wondering if I wasn’t suffering from some sort of psychological self-protection mechanism, forcing me to miss all the signs proving that I was a dummy and it was all my fault. Confirmation bias writ large and very pathological.

Regardless of blame, however, I literally missed the bugs because of my hidden assumptions!

  1. Abe,

    Great article on assumptions. I relate to your thinking and wrote an article recently on the dangers of our unconscious limitations. You can check it out here.

    I also love the fireflies photo. I had no idea about their cycles either! Learn something new everyday.


  2. Thanks for the feedback, Lynn!

    In spite of the enormous embarrassment it was a fun trip, and at least I can say I got this blog post out of it! 🙂

    Next year I’ll get it right.

  3. Irreverence Versus Arrogance | Abe Heward's Blog - pingback on July 18, 2010 at 6:17 am

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