Hunting Unknown Unknowns

So why do we prototype in the first place? What is it that prototypes allow designers and engineers to do that cannot be discovered otherwise?

Well, I think the biggest power of prototypes are the rapid learning cycles they allow for. They help you uncover circumstances important to your products. Hence they are valuable tools when defining the right requirements for a solution – a product, a service or an experience.

Hunting Unknown Unknowns

In the field of requirement engineering the design engineer should elicit requirements in four different fields; the known knowns, the unknown knowns, the known unknowns and lastly the unknown unknown. The latter serves as the biggest challenge since the are not identified by the engineer, but can have servere consequences, when neglected. To quote the American Minister of Defense (1975-1977) Donal Rumsfeld.

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

Donald Rumsfeld

Ariane 5 rocket (1996)

Ariane 5’s first test flight on 4 June 1996 failed, with the rocket self-destructing 37 seconds after launch because of a malfunction in the control software.The software was originally written for the Ariane 4 and was included in the Ariane 5 through the reuse of an entire Ariane 4 subsystem despite the fact that the particular software containing the bug. Due to lack of testing the consequences of the bug was not identified, which led to the launch you see below.

Non-human actors

With an increased focus on human-centred design the unknown unknowns are typically related to human factors. This could cover unforeseen use contexts, cultural aspects or simply irrational behaviour (we are indeed irrational creatures).

However unknown unknowns can concern many other aspects such as unforeseen technology shifts and mechanical consequences. These details can be hard to grasp, when only simulating or talking about a certain problem.

This is where prototypes and especially the ones build in the early stages have their power. They are valuable tools for eliciting the ambiguous unknown unknowns.

The question is how organisation build organizational structures and teach their employees to embrace the eliciting of this important type of requirement.